“I’m 27. I’m retired. But I still want to compete.”
That’s Olympic champion Michael Phelps talking in “The Haney Project,” a Golf Channel series that stars Tiger Woods’ one-time coach taking on a new celebrity student each season. Phelps’ words pretty much summarize the premise of this year’s edition, which starts Monday night.
In the past, Hank Haney’s celebrity pupils have included Ray Romano, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Barkley and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine. This season, the student is the swimmer from Baltimore who won 18 gold medals in Olympic competition.
Those viewers who are used to only seeing Phelps in the pool, arms raised in triumph at the end of a race, might be surprised to see him struggling mightily off the tee, gouging divots, shanking shots and throwing clubs.
He sometimes pouts when Haney pushes, he fails to master his Haney lessons before pro-am tournaments and he sneaks a hot dog in the middle of a practice session. Even he acknowledges his lack of focus near the end of Monday’s episode, saying, “I have let myself go in a lot of ways.”
If that sounds like formulaic reality TV, that’s because “The Haney Project: Michael Phelps” is a reality TV show — make no mistake about it. True, it’s an Olympic legend featured in the series — not Kate Gosselin, Honey Boo Boo or a noodling “expert” in Oklahoma who sticks his hand in the water hoping to be bit by a fish.
But Phelps is doing reality TV on a niche cable channel. Of all the doors open to him after one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of all time, the Baltimore native chose to star in eight hours of reality television that will play out over the next two months on the Golf Channel.
Phelps, normally not a man of many words, explained the decision during a telephone conference call last week.
“One of the craziest things was when I got my first set of golf clubs, I wanted to do it just to give myself, ... something away from the pool that doesn’t have to be always ... focused around swimming,” he said.
“I have friends that played in high school and played in college. And I was able to go out with them and at that point, I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I’ll just quit swimming and start golfing.’ But then, we decided that probably wasn’t the best idea,” he added.
Once the swimming career ended, however, Phelps said, he decided to go beyond golf as a “hobby” taking time off “to really focus” on the game.
“Being able to travel the world and play some of the best golf courses and learn from the greatest golf coach,” he said of the Gold Channel offer, “for me it’s just a cool opportunity of being able to learn a game that’s so challenging.”
The first hour definitely shows him being challenged by what’s referred to as “the geometry and geography of golf” on the show. And that’s part of the intended appeal.
As Mike McCarley, president of the Golf Channel, explained in a statement: “We stand in awe of Michael’s Olympic accomplishments, but it’s hard to put ourselves in his shoes except when it comes to golf. So, as Michael experiences the ups and downs of improving his game through ‘The Haney Project,’ Golf Channel’s audience can relate to his transition from Olympic icon to a guy simply trying not to spoil a good day on the golf course.”
But there’s a deeper appeal with this edition of “The Haney Project,” which it didn’t have with baggy-pants old guys like Limbaugh, Romano or Barkley: This is a guy in his 20s living a young, adult, male fantasy. Phelps has millions of dollars in the bank, girlfriends who pose in bikinis, a record of athletic accomplishment that will probably never be matched, the respect of other celebrities like Michael Jordan and lots of time to play, play, play.
On Thursday, for example, “The Haney Project” cameras followed Phelps around the Baltimore Orioles training camp in Sarasota, Fla., as the Olympic champion took batting practice and kidded around with the players and coaches. Then, it was off to play some golf. Pretty much a day in paradise for most young — and many old — men. Probably, some women, too.
Monday’s episode deftly mines some of that appeal with backstage videotape of Phelps appearing on the Golf Channel’s “Feherty” talk show with Jordan. More video shows Phelps lobbying Congress with actor Denzel Washington
In fact, Monday’s episode spends more time off the course than on with Phelps. The first portion of the hourlong episode is virtually all biography with lots and lots of Phelps in the pool running up the medal count.