The President on the game he loves, and why he's like any other guy on the tee.
You never really get used to hearing the president of the United States shouting, "Oh, don't leak! Please don't leak!" as his gently slicing golf ball drifts into a treelined rough. It sounds so, well, normal. You also have a hard time getting used to having Bill Clinton as your playing partner, especially when he is mercilessly razzing one of your opponents, who on this day happens to be Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
The president has already made par on a tough, 185-yard par 3, which the commander in chief has hit with a high, floating 3-iron. Dodd has a chance to beat him by making his birdie putt. "Don't leave that putt short, Chris—you've really got to hit it hard; you just wouldn't want to be short," the president yammers at Dodd right into his backstroke, trying to get inside the senator's head on a 20-foot putt that needs to be hit anything but hard. Dodd misses the putt, but happily pockets the memory of being needled by the leader of the free world.
Thomas L. Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times and Contributing Editor to Golf Digest, had just this opportunity in early August—a game with the outgoing president while conducting this interview.
"Once that tee goes into the ground on the first hole, the president behaves exactly like a member of your regular foursome," Friedman says. "Sure, there are seven golf carts following you—bearing Secret Service agents, a black-clad police sniper, an official White House photographer, a man carrying America's nuclear codes in case of a missile attack, assorted aides and a mobile secure telephone so the president can talk to any world leader he wants to between putts. But the point is, he doesn't want to. He's not here to strut his power. He's here to beat your brains out, to get in your pocket, to share a few jokes, chomp his cigar, make as many pars as he can and generally forget about whoever might be on the other end of that secure phone—unless it happens to be Tiger Woods looking for a fourth."
Friedman had interviewed Clinton in the Oval Office about world affairs on several occasions, but he says he never found the president in a more animated or reflective mood than when they talked golf between shots at the 6,200-yard Army Navy Country Club in Fairfax, Va. The First Golfer also showed a thorough knowledge of presidential golf history.
Having played golf with Clinton seven years ago, Friedman says that though the two terms in office have grayed the president's hair, "they have also smoothed out his backswing."
Although Clinton took a few of what he termed "Middle East mulligans"—to compensate for his just-completed all-nighters at Camp David with the Yasser Arafat foursome—Friedman says Clinton's game has definitely improved during his eight years in office.
"If, in a few months, he shows up at the first tee of your local course and asks to be your partner in a $2 nassau and says he'll play as a 13- or 14-handicap with no mulligans—well, take him as your partner," Friedman says. "You'll do OK."
On this particular day, Clinton drove the cart, parceled out tips from recent professional playing partners and teachers, took a few messages from aides, shot in the 80s and had this to say:
GOLF DIGEST: How has your game been affected by being president?
President Clinton: I think I'm the only president whose handicap has gone down while he's been in office. It's only because I've gotten to play with all these pros and other good golfers, and they give me all this good advice.
When did you first start playing golf?
When I was 12 at an old course in Hot Springs, Ark. When I was growing up, my uncle belonged to it and he loaned me some clubs. I had no lessons or anything, so I kind of hacked around until I was 17, then I quit. I started again right before I got married to Hillary; I started playing with her brothers. When I was governor, the old Little Rock course was only 10 minutes from my office to being on the first tee, and I used to go out there a lot in the summertime. I could get there at 6:30 and still play 18 holes. That's when I played with a lot of my friends, but I always loved to play alone. I still like to go out and just hit the ball.
Is playing alone a way for you to get away? You have people around you all the time.
No. I really like playing with other people, but when I was younger it gave me some time to think. You didn't have these manicured courses like now, with all the houses. You were all alone out in the woods, and since I wasn't very good, I was in the woods a lot.