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 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.
Have you played overseas?
I've now played in Ireland. I went on a little trip last September with my good friend Mariann Byerwalter. Mariann's a really good golfer -- she played at Stanford in the '80s. We played Portmarnock, Royal County Down and Royal Dublin, and the K Club. It was fabulous. At Royal Dublin, we had twin birdies on their signature par 3, on 9. My tee shot was a tap-in birdie.
Did you sample the Guinness?
Of course. We learned to like it, actually.
What courses are at the top of your to-do list?
I've played a lot of great courses. But of course I'd love to play St. Andrews. Everybody wants to play St. Andrews. In the United States, I hope to play some of the great Eastern courses: Shinnecock, Winged Foot and those courses. I want to go back to Ireland and play the southern courses: Lahinch, Ballybunion.
Do you have time to read golf books?
I love Bob Rotella's books. They really play to my mental limitations. I wrote him once. I think his books have helped me think about managing the course, although I'm still way too aggressive.
What has golf taught you?
I'm a pretty good athlete. And I was sort of good at tennis right away. But golf isn't like that. It gives, and it takes away. So it's taught me to be more patient, and it's taught me to try to rein in my tendency to always go for it.
You're part of the USGA's 2012 Nominating Committee [which decides the makeup of the organization's Executive Committee]. What are your goals in golf?
This is a wonderful game. But it has some challenges. You know, tennis is a warning sign in that regard. When I started playing tennis in the mid-'70s, you couldn't get a membership, you couldn't get on a court -- it was everybody's game. And something happened. Some of it was the baby boomers like me started to realize that other things were easier on their knees. But somehow, it lost its punch. So I think golf has to work hard to be a game that's growing in the United States. And that's going to mean diversification of the golfing public. I'm a big fan of The First Tee program.
Obviously golf has had a long history of discrimination. The tour had a Caucasian-only clause up until 1961. Then there was the infamous Shoal Creek controversy in your hometown. [In the run-up to the 1990 PGA Championship, the host club's founder, Hall Thompson, told a reporter that Shoal Creek did not discriminate in any area "except the blacks." Asked about black golfers visiting the club as guests of members, Thompson replied, "That's just not done in Birmingham."] Your reaction to the controversy?
I remember it. I wasn't of course a golfer at the time. But let's remember that it was 1964 when the Civil Rights Act passed. Before that I couldn't go into a restaurant or to a movie theater in Birmingham. Our country has a history of overcoming our prejudices, overcoming our difficult past. And golf is a part of that.
How gratifying was it to join Shoal Creek, in 2008, given its past?
Well look, I didn't join Shoal Creek as a social statement. But I think it's a good statement about how far our country has come, how far Birmingham has come, and sure, every time those barriers come down you're reminded of how hard people had to fight to bring them down. But I love Shoal Creek, and I'm a proud member.
Did you ever meet Hall Thompson?
Oh, I did. In fact he was the person who I think made the first outreach to me through some common friends about joining Shoal Creek. He and his wife were nice enough to host me for dinner at the club. And I'll never forget the first time I played Shoal Creek, him coming out and standing by one of the greens to welcome me. He was a really nice man.
Did you ever talk with him about the controversy in 1990?
No, no. We all know the past. And while you should never forget your past, you have to move on.
When Tiger Woods started his pro career 15 years ago, he said one of his goals was to make golf look like America. It doesn't seem like there has been much progress. There are, for instance, very few black golfers on the PGA Tour today. Why doesn't golf look like America?
You'll start to see it. I've seen a few juniors now. When you watch the U.S. Amateur you start to see a few kids coming along. Somehow people have to know that this is a game that they can play, should play, that will be welcoming to them. And the athleticism of some of the players now, that may help to attract younger kids, too, who might say, "You know, maybe I won't play basketball, or football; maybe I'll play golf." The athleticism in the game may attract more youth, not just black youth.
It's a cultural issue.
It may be, though I've always said as a political scientist that "culture" is what we use when we can't explain things. I think it's more about accessibility. Part of the problem is that this is an expensive game. I know in a couple of places where there are black members, and they come from pretty much the same socioeconomic level that the white members come from.
Have you experienced any racism in golf?
No. I was Secretary of State when I started golf. So it's not an issue. But I'd like to think if it were a younger Condi Rice at 18 -- say I'd chosen golf, not tennis, as my sport -- I'd like to think that there wouldn't have been problems. But I don't know that for sure.
Augusta National Golf Club. The ideal of freedom of association allows single-sex clubs in America. But do you feel in any sense that as a very influential, highly public body, Augusta has an obligation to set a better example by being a mixed club?
No. I actually don't. These are issues for the membership. I've got a lot of good friends at Augusta who are really good people. And it's really up to them. Obviously I don't believe that you can have racial discrimination. That is something that is not only illegal but immoral. But there are women-only associations and men-only associations, and these are things that we need to leave to people to sort out. The face of America is changing, the face of golf is changing. All of this will change. You know, who would have thought that we'd be sitting here in 2011 with a black president and a female Secretary of State at the same time? Or that in 2001 we'd have a black Secretary of State and a black National Security Advisor at the same time? America's changing.
You've been suggested as being an ideal first female member of Augusta National. Do you have any comment on that?
That doesn't surprise me. How was playing Augusta as a guest?
It was great. It was really something. I did not break 100 the first time. The second time I did; I think I had a 98. Mostly because I played Amen Corner in three over. I was very happy with that.
And you went to the Masters Tournament in 2009 and wrote about it for The Daily Beast. How was that experience?
It was fabulous. I'd watched the Masters on television since I was a little girl. Long before I ever thought about picking up a golf club. My father was just a sports junkie, and we watched everything of consequence in sport together. My dad was a huge fan of Arnold Palmer. I liked the Masters from the very beginning. I liked the pageantry. I talked in The Daily Beast about watching in 1968 and how upset my mother was with what happened with Roberto De Vicenzo, and so it was so nice that the Argentine, Angel Cabrera, won the year I was there. It was great.
Your father never played golf?
No, he played everything else, but not golf. It just wasn't part of our milieu. My dad had played tennis collegiately, and so he wanted me to play tennis. But he made the mistake of taking me out in 95-degree weather in Birmingham, with 95 percent humidity, when I was 8. And I was 18 before I picked up another tennis racket. My mother didn't play sports at all.
What are your impressions of Michelle Wie -- have you played golf with her?
I played with her very early on, I hadn't been playing that long. I had a 15-hour stop in Hawaii and she nicely came out and played with me. This was before she came to Stanford. But I've seen her several times since. One of my fondest memories of Michelle is coming out of the Notre Dame-Stanford football game which we'd just won, and there she was, cheering like a Stanford student. She's a wonderful young woman and I really pull for her on the tour because she's got a great game, and I think going to college has been good for her. I'm very fond of her -- she's smart, she's a really nice young woman and she's a terrific golfer.
When did you first meet Tiger Woods?
When he came to Stanford, at some kind of freshman event. We've met many times over the years, including sitting next to each other at the Duke-Stanford game back in 2000 when Stanford hit a buzzer-beater to beat No. 1-ranked Duke, and we rushed the floor together.
You've never played golf together?
No, but that's on my to-do list.
How do you view the whole sex scandal -- his fall from grace?
These are to my point of view personal issues, and people make mistakes. I've been in the klieg lights in Washington, and it's really hard. It's hard when people are watching your every move. I take Tiger at his word that he wants to repair what-ever damage he's done, both to his personal life and to people who were counting on him. But my prayers are for him and for his family, and that he comes through this whole, and back where he should be.
Were you disappointed in his behavior?
It's not for me to be disappointed. This is solely between him and his family. He knows what he's done wrong, and it's up to him to repair it.
Have you spoken to him about it?
No. You know, I sent him a note just saying that I hoped everything would come out all right. Because he's a good person. It's just that there's nothing quite like being under those klieg lights.
How does it feel for you to have a black president in America?
I'm delighted, you know? The day after he was elected I went down to the Briefing Room at the State Department and said how proud I was of it. It doesn't mean I agree with everything he does. The fact that we're equal-opportunity critics of our president is coming through very strongly. The United States of America: The day we elect our president he's the smartest human being we've ever seen, and a year later it's, "How did we ever elect that person?" That just goes with the job. It's a very lonely job being president.
Would you ever tee it up with President Obama?
Oh, sure, absolutely. I know what it's like for him. And I'm glad he's playing golf. People have absolutely no idea how pressured those jobs are. I mean that you never, ever feel any release from it, whatsoever. You get up in the morning feeling the weight of the job, and you go to bed at night feeling the weight of the job. I remember so well, a few days after I'd left government, and waking up and thinking, What's that? And thinking, Oh, that's the absence of pressure. The absence of stress. And so anything that he can do, whether it's shooting hoops or going out and hitting a golf ball, I hope he does it.
When I was Secretary of State, I didn't have much time, but Sunday afternoons I tried to take off. I would work Sunday morning and then go to church. And then I would go to Andrews Air Force Base and play golf. My rule was, if it was 37 degrees or above, I played. I had so little time. But when I came back, I felt better. And I was ready to get up the next day and go after it. The idea that people can just work and work and work and never, ever be away from their work and still be effective and efficient, is just wrong.
We're not machines.
No, we're not machines.
Not even Condoleezza Rice?
Most especially not Condoleezza Rice.
What about Bill Clinton: Have you ever teed it up with him?
I haven't. I've never played with him. But I would play with President Clinton, too. I think he'd be fun.
Who would make a better president, Condoleezza Rice or Sarah Palin?
[Laughs.] Well, Sarah Palin has actually been governor of Alaska and has actually run for vice president. And so if she wants to do it, that's great. I have no desire to do it.
I'm curious about your lack of desire to run for high office. It seems a natural next step. What is it about it that doesn't appeal?
You just have to know what you're cut out to do and what you're not. You have to have real desire in your gut to run for office. You have to be energized by it, not enervated. And I think I'd be enervated. I loved being Secretary of State, but I don't particularly want to go back to Washington. But I will continue to do public service. I keep involved. I just don't want to run for office.
You're presumably still involved in politics here at Stanford. Wasn't it Henry Kissinger who said that politics in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so low?
Henry did say that. But that's because he wasn't provost of a great university. Yeah, the politics can be quite something in the university, but I don't think the stakes are low. I think the stakes are very high.
So you don't miss the white heat of being right at the heart of the US government?
Eight years was plenty for that. I think maybe people who go for one term and are kind of hoping to be there for another term and maybe they don't get a chance. But eight years was just plenty. We were in the eye of the storm.
and well, 9/11. It all starts on 9/11.
What do you say to people who criticize the Iraq War as being a colossal mistake?
I'd say let's see how history's arc turns out because Saddam Hussein pursuing weapons of mass destruction in a race with Ahmadinejad's Iran, that doesn't really appeal to me either. So I'm glad Saddam is gone. I think the Middle East is better for it. And you know there are terrible sacrifices in that war and you can never recover the lives lost. But the fact is nothing of value is ever earned without sacrifice. And I think the Middle East is a better place without Saddam Hussein.
How do you see things playing out with the latest events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, across the region?
It's an extraordinary time in the Middle East. It's one of those things you could see coming because these were authoritarian regimes that were out of touch with their people. In fact, I gave a speech in 2005 in Egypt saying that reform had to come. Because people wouldn't be denied freedoms forever. But now you have to hope for, at least in places like Egypt that have some institutions, a transition toward more democracy. Democracy is the only legitimate form of government. What was surprising is that it was a self-immolation in Tunisia that set it off. That's what you can never see. You can see the events building up but you can never see the spark. And that's whay these things are surprising. It's not that you're surprised that it happened but you're surprised when it happened and how it happened. So it's going to be a turbulent time. But better turbulence than the silence of tyranny.
So do you see transformational democracy coming to the Arab world?
It's going to take a lot of work. And it's hard. You and I have been sitting here talking about how hard it was to make the principles embodied in the Constitution true for all Americans. And we're a mature democracy. And in my lifetime those principles weren't all true. So democracy takes a long time. But it's well worth it.
You used to be a Democrat. You voted for Jimmy Carter. What happened?
Well first of all I was what, 22. Look, I think I've reported it many times. I was very unhappy with the handling of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, and I thought Ronald Reagan would renew American power and strength and make the world safer, and that's why I voted for him. I've never looked back.
Who do you most admire in the world today?
Oh I admire lots of people, but mostly I admire people who are taking on hard problems and trying to do a better job for their people. One person that I admire enormously is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is the president of Liberia. She seems to me to embody what it means to take on hard problems and try to solve them with integrity. I always keep her in mind when I think about international leadership. And of course the person who sticks out in mind among presidents -- obviously I love George W. Bush -- is George H.W. Bush. He is a gentleman and he was someone who ended the Cold War, and I think never got enough credit for it.
What drives you now? What are your goals?
I love being a university professor. I love that moment in a classroom when you realize that you've opened up some vista for that really bright 20-year-old, who maybe didn't quite know where he or she was going, and now, all of a sudden, Oh, yeah, international politics. That's what I want to do. Somebody did that for me, otherwise I'd still be laboring as a pianist someplace. I'm a university person, you know? And American universities are not just the best in the world, they're the best in human history. And a place like Stanford that has that incredible combination of the brilliant 18-year-old and the Nobel Laureate and Silicon Valley -- it's just a spectacular place to be. I'm driven to be the best professor I can be. And to write -- I'm writing a book about the eight years in government. I want to write a book about democracy. And I'm involved in a lot of nonprofit activities. And I'm trying to break 90 more regularly.