Golf Digest Interview

Condi Rice

The former Secretary of State embraces golf and 'my inner Phil Mickelson'

Condi Rice


DATE OF BIRTH: Nov. 14, 1954
Birmingham, Ala.
B.A., University of Denver; M.A., University of Notre Dame; Ph.D., Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Professor of Political Science, Stanford University, May 1993 to present.
Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State, January 2005-January 2009.
National Security Advisor, The White House, January 2001-January 2005.
Provost, Stanford University, September 1993-June 1999.

• Forthcoming book on American foreign policy, 2000-2009.
• Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (2010).
• Political-science books on Russia, Europe and campaign strategy.

Memberships: Stanford Golf Course, San Francisco Golf Club, Shoal Creek, Country Club of Birmingham.
Handicap Index:16.4
Best score: 87
June 2011

At the age of 50, a few months into one of the most demanding jobs in America, Condoleezza Rice took up golf. This was no mere trivial pursuit, an occasional escape from long hours in the West Wing. Six years later, Rice plays golf for the same reason she does anything: Because she wants to be really, really good at it.

Descended from slaves, and born into 1950s Birmingham, Ala. -- then the most segregated big city in America -- Dr. Rice has always been driven to achieve: Ph.D., provost of Stanford University, National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, Secretary of State. It's as if the highest hurdles weed out all but the very strongest of jumpers. And she was blessed with wise, highly engaged parents -- who instilled in her the notion that to succeed she would have to be "twice as good" -- plus a great extended family, role models, mentors, community and education.

Rice is now a professor of political science at Stanford, where the interview with Golf Digest took place at a conference table in her cluttered corner office in the Herbert Hoover Memorial Building. The walls are lined with shelf upon shelf of weighty poli-sci tomes, interspersed with photographs of state dinners, awards and other sundry professorabilia. In person, Rice is engaging, forthright and highly expressive -- there's a light-up-the-room beam when she recalls a golf triumph, or a scalding, thunderous frown when tackling more disagreeable matters.

No matter your politics, in person it's difficult not to like her.

Golf Digest: So, golf. How did you start playing?

Condoleezza Rice: I've been an athlete all my life. I was a competitive figure skater, and then when I realized skating was not an adult sport I took up tennis and played that quite seriously from the time I was about 18. And then I went on vacation in the summer of 2005 to The Greenbrier. My cousin and her husband live on the TPC course at Sugarloaf [near Atlanta], and he'd always wanted her to play, so he gave her lessons, and he gave me buddy lessons. And I loved it.

What's the appeal of it for you? As such a high-energy person, isn't it a bit too sedate and slow-moving?

Oh, not at all. For one thing, you're outside, and when I was in Washington, I was rarely outside. Maybe that's the greatest appeal. But it's actually also a thinking-person's game. I find that I enjoy walking from shot to shot and deciding how I'm going to get out of this or that trouble. I just enjoy the strategy of it.

You've always been driven in everything you do, whether it's playing the piano, ice skating, learning to speak Russian or pursuing your career. Do you bring that same focus to your golf? Or is it just an escape?

No, I don't like anything that's "just an escape." To me the best part of golf is that, unlike my tennis game, I can actually get better. I've probably reached my plateau in tennis, but in golf I have a lot of room for improvement. I really enjoy working on my game. I like practicing. I chart my rounds.

And you have no idea where your plateau might be.

Right. That's the excitement of it.

How often do you play?

In the off-season I try to get out about once a week. If I don't play, I try to practice. In the summer, I'll get out three times a week. I live five minutes from the Stanford Golf Course.

Do you have a coach?

I do. I work here with one of the Stanford golf pros, Russ Vander Sluis. And then I have a coach in Birmingham, Eric Eshleman, who used to coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and was the swing coach of Graeme McDowell. So between the two of them, we're working hard to improve my game.

And what's your style of play? Are you an aggressive player or cautious or...

No, I'm very aggressive. My inner Phil Mickelson comes out quite frequently. I've played with Phil, so I can say that. I'm fairly long, but a little wild with my driver. I'm a very good putter.

How was it, playing with Phil?

He invited me to play with him in San Diego. It happened to be my birthday. And I just loved playing with Phil. We came to a maybe 170-yard carry over a barranca. At my level, most people would say, "Well, lay up." But Phil looked at me and said, "Do you have a 180-yard club?" And I said, "Yeah, my 3-wood." And he said, "Oh, go for it." It was wonderful. That's Phil's personality, and it's the way I like to play, too.

Best score?

Best score so far is 87. Playing this past summer with a friend who is a really good golfer, at Sun Valley.

And you have a Handicap Index?

I do. I'm a 16.4, which means at my home course, Stanford, I'm about a 20. Stanford's a tough course. I would like to break 90 more consistently. That's my goal. I'd like to bring my Index down so that I'm playing to about a 14-, 15-handicap by the end of the summer. And I'd like to one day get down under 10.

Any particularly great or memorable shots that stand out?

Oh, sure, I've had lots of memorable shots. The first time I played Pebble -- the only time I've played Pebble -- I really hadn't been playing that long, and I parred the first hole, and then on the par 4, the fourth, I drove the green. And then three-putted for a par because I was so nervous on the eagle putt.

Have you played with a lot of famous people, politicians, heads of state?

Well, I play with President Bush -- George W. Bush -- who has become quite dedicated to his game. He started when he was young, so he has one of those wonderful, I-played-when-I-was-14 swings that are very different from people like me who started later in life.

You're both very competitive, so do you have intense battles on the golf course?

We've been on the same teams a couple of times, and we won both times, so we're doing OK. We haven't had a head-to-head match yet. I want to be sure I'm really ready for that.

Do you play in competitions?

I just played in the Northern Trust Pro-Am, which was my first pro-am. I had a wonderful time. Steve Stricker was my wonderful pro. I was terrified on the first tee. You step up and they say, "Let me draw your attention to the first tee." And I thought, No, please don't draw your attention to the first tee. I thought to myself, Slow down, turn, don't pop it. And I hit it just fine. After that I wasn't nervous at all. Steve Stricker is a wonderful person to play with. We finished nine under. And I contributed four net birdies. So I felt pretty good about that.

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