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Interview

A New Role For Bill Clinton

The president steps in as a tournament host and offers his thoughts on the game he loves

February 2012

Since he became president, I have played golf with Bill Clinton and I have interviewed Bill Clinton about golf--and I'm not sure which is more fun. But what I can say for sure is that he has not lost his zest for either. Clinton's handicap today is somewhere in the mid-teens, but when it comes to analyzing his passion for the game, he's a scratch. For this interview, we met in a high-rise office building near the White House that is being remodeled into a green building. Clinton and President Obama had just given a joint press conference to highlight energy-efficient construction. Clinton, 65, shifted effortlessly to offer recollections about an amazing putt made by a nearly blind Bob Hope, favorite courses, a tip from Jack Nicklaus, and why golf is so much like life and the presidency--because you get all kinds of good and bad breaks that you don't deserve, and you just have to learn to live with them.

Audio excerpt: Clinton on Barack Obama

Audio excerpt: Michael Jordan's swing advice for Clinton

GOLF DIGEST: You still love the game so much--how much do you play?

Bill Clinton: First, I don't play nearly as much as I used to.

Is that for physical reasons or just time reasons?

Time reasons. I'm working very hard. Even though I'm in better shape than I was before my heart surgery [2004] and have worked out, I never have recovered my golfing strength. That is, my distance dropped way off, and I never got it back. So I'm not playing as much, but I still love to go play. I'm no longer under the illusion I'm going on the senior tour, so now I'm free to enjoy days when I don't play so well and see if I can't salvage a hole, or if I put three good shots together, just enjoy it. But I was really horrible the day I played at Andrews with President Obama.

Were you guys well matched?

Yeah, we were that day. I should, on a normal day, just because I've played so much more--I've played decades longer than he has--I should probably still be a couple of strokes better. But he beat me fair and square. [Clinton has said he shot a 92 that day.]

Did any money change hands?

No. [Laughter.] He, for a guy who never really played seriously before he came out here, you can tell he's athletic. And he has very good directional control over the ball. He just needs to play more.

Tell me a little bit about the golf tournament [the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation the week of Jan. 16 in La Quinta, Calif.]. You're replacing Bob Hope as its host. What's your favorite memory of him?

Well, you know, I adored him. First, in 1979, Bob Hope played the University of Arkansas. A comedy act. So I went up to see him. Afterward he wanted to go to dinner. I got him to talking about golf and his games with Crosby and the Road movies, and then his exercise program. He was in his 70s then. The thing I remember most clearly, besides all the wonderful stories, is how he had maintained his health. He told me the only thing he ever did was walk an hour every day. He said, "If you do that seven days a week, you ought to live a long life." I'll never forget that.

Fast-forward... I was in the White House one day. They said, "Bob Hope called here today. His people did. He said he was going to be in Washington tomorrow, and he wants you to take him to play nine holes of golf. He's now 95, he can't play 18, but he wants you to take him to play nine." So I said OK. So we go out to Army Navy.

He's got a young man with him because he can't see anymore. That is, he can see the ball at his feet to hit and to putt, but he has no distance. We get to this par-3 hole, it's 173 yards up a hill. He hits a driver on the green. Barely gets it to the green--95 years old, and he whacked it up there. So the young man looked at me. I said, "He's got about a 25- or 30-foot uphill putt. That thing's going to break about six to eight inches." So Hope--I swear I can't make this up; he's 95 years old--he putts the ball to two inches! A 95-year-old guy has a two-inch tap-in for par! Unbelievable.

The only thing I worry about--because I wear these hearing devices, have since I was president--the main thing that really accelerates the aging process that you have to fight is when older people lose their hearing. It happened to Mandela, too. I remember Mandela had this remarkable comeback in his late 80s because he got a new doctor who could calibrate his hearing. This day Hope was doing well with his hearing. And we had the best time.

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