InterviewJanuary 17, 2012

A New Role For Bill Clinton

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

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.

What do you hope to use the tournament for in terms of causes?

I watched it all the time as a kid and a young man. But the model's not sustainable in the modern world. But on the other hand, Bob Hope did a lot for golf, did a lot for America, and I just didn't want to see it go away.

I've known Tim Finchem for 35 years. The PGA has all these golfers who are all doing some kind of charity work, and a lot of it is related one way or another to health. We got our anchor sponsor. We decided that we'd try to change the format and make it shorter, and one day before it starts have Humana and me and our Alliance for a Healthier Generation work with the PGA Tour to do something on wellness, which would include childhood obesity but also would include changing practices for older people.

Will you play, too?

I'll probably play a couple of days. I just haven't been playing--I mean, you know, a little bit. My best year as a golfer was 2001. I got down to a legitimate 10; the only time I was ever a 10. And I was hitting the ball forever. The next year I went to 34 countries. Next year I finished writing my book. Next year had my heart surgery. It's been one thing after another. But I still love to play.

When you go to heaven, if there are three courses ... which three?

I'd like it to be the Old Course at St. Andrews. I'd like it to be the Old Course at Ballybunion. And I would like it to be one of a half a dozen great Hawaiian courses because I feel better on the golf course in Hawaii than any place on earth.

You've been able to play with a lot of good golfers. Best golf tip anyone ever gave you?

Corey Pavin played here in the Kemper before he won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock. While he's playing in the Kemper, on the second day, after he gets done, he comes and plays Army Navy with me. I'd just met him. I was so touched that he would do it. I said, "Corey, is this gonna mess you up?" But he said, "If I can't play 36 holes of golf, I've got no business on the tour."

While we were doing this he said to me, "The No. 1 mistake I see among average golfers who have the potential to do better--and you do--besides gripping the club too hard, whenever they get close to the green they try to scoop the ball." He said, "If you can just remember, every time you miss a shot around the green, just push your hands forward, and if you're inside 40 yards, never, never, never again break your wrists until after you hit the ball. If you do that, your game will improve. Your hands will calm down. You won't get this tightness. You won't be nervous."

I could have used that last weekend.

[Laughter.] I had two great days with Jack Nicklaus. Gerald Ford and I both played with him in '93. In two whole days, I outdrove Jack Nicklaus once, by about six inches. Only once. And I hit it on this par 5 in two; we were in Colorado. Eight feet from the hole, for eagle. And I stubbed the putt. Just stubbed it. He looked at me, and he said, "You didn't think you were worthy of an eagle, did you?" I said, "You know, I don't." He smiled and said, "You need to get over that. You're gonna have plenty of double bogeys. If you get down to a scratch golfer, you're still going to make double bogeys, you'll still lose a ball every now and then. So if you get an eagle, you are worthy of it. That's why the ball's sitting where it is, because you hit two good shots."

Are you ever able to get Hillary out? Does she ever play?

When we were in the White House and we would go to Martha's Vineyard, she would always go to Mink Meadows with me once, and before we used to have a deal that Hillary would go once a year. So this year on my 65th birthday, or running up to it, we were still in Chappaqua [N.Y.]. Hillary and Chelsea and Marc [Chelsea Clinton's husband, Marc Mezvinsky] took me to the golf course, to Trump [Trump National Golf Club in New York's Westchester County]. And Chelsea hadn't played since she took lessons when she was at Sidwell. And Marc never plays. So they said, "You always want us to play golf. Here it is: We're your birthday present." And the Trump people were great: They organized all their tee times so we wouldn't delay anybody. We schlepped around nine holes together. [Hillary] said, "We think you need to feel like you're the best golfer in the world, and the only way you can is if all you've got to compare yourself to is us."

Do you belong anywhere now?

I play at the Trump course there. Then I play at a number of other courses in New York with other people, but when people come to play with me, that's where I take them. I have a membership there.

Have you ever played with 43 [President George W. Bush, the 43rd president]?

No, and I've always wanted to.

You've played with his dad [President George H.W. Bush]?

A lot, mostly in Maine. With Tom Brady, who is a great golfer, and Jimmy Nantz. The only other football player I ever played with who was almost as graceful as Tom Brady was Mike Haynes, the All-Pro cornerback. He and O.J. Simpson, of all people, played with me one day in California, before all the stuff happened.

Fellow Arkansan John Daly has been struggling. Any advice for him?

He's still got enormous skills... You know, it breaks my heart, all the tough things that have happened to him. I just pull for him.

Why is golf like life?

Because, first, my famous answer--you get breaks you don't deserve, both ways--that's really true. Even though I'm not very good anymore, I have some days when almost all the shots are pretty good. And you get days, I had a deal the other day where I had four 6s in nine holes. I couldn't believe it. I said, "I haven't had four 6s in nine holes since I was a teenager."

The second thing, I ask myself all the time why I never get bored playing courses I like. Not just great courses. I think it's the same reason I don't get bored with life. If you think about it, until you get to the end of your life--and most of us don't know when it's coming--we act like we're bored because "I'm gonna do the same thing as I did yesterday." No, you're not. Different stuff's going on in your mind, different stuff's going on in your heart. So if you're alive to the possibility of what's different, it gives you a gift every time you go. Like you can't lose. You can play bad. You can make a lousy score. But you can't lose. And I love that.