The Golf Digest Interview: Bill Clinton
Walter Iooss Jr.
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Golf Digest has a history of publishing stories on U.S. presidents who played golf. Two commanders-in-chief appeared on our covers—Dwight D. Eisenhower, who joined forces with Arnold Palmer to popularize modern golf, and George Herbert Walker Bush, whose grandfather donated the Walker Cup. Almost as avid was our 43rd president, Bill Clinton, who became equally known among golfers for his floating mulligan.
The Year 2000 featured Tiger Woods’ Triple Crown—winning the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship—and a contentious 2000 presidential election that was decided in extra holes. As Clinton was leaving office, he agreed to sit for an exit interview with our longtime contributor Thomas L. Friedman, whose day job is foreign-affairs columnist at The New York Times. Friedman took up the game as a caddie in his native Minnesota and had become a pretty good club player, going on to win multiple senior club championships and Pulitzer Prizes. Clinton had just turned 54 and was playing golf about three times a month. He was using a Titleist 975D driver with 7.5-degree loft but during the round was also testing one of the USGA-banned Callaway ERC drivers. The rest of his bag was apolitical—a Ping 3-wood, a PowerBilt 4-wood, Wilson Fat Shaft irons and an Odyssey Rossie II putter.
Friedman had interviewed Clinton several times before at the White House, but riding 18 holes in a cart with him, he found the president most expansive and even introspective. Spoiler alert: There are many revealing exchanges, but the most quoted was Clinton’s comparison of golf to life: “All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted.” This story appeared in the November 2000 issue. There’s also a link to a follow-up interview that Friedman did with Clinton a dozen years later. —Jerry Tarde
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.
Who would be your dream foursome of presidents to spend a day on the golf course?
I think if I were going to pick three people I could spend the day talking to, it would be Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. But, if I were going to play golf with them, I would have the young FDR, who was a great golfer. He might have had the best golf swing of any president [before polio confined him to a wheelchair]. Kennedy had the lowest handicap, but during the time he was president he could play only nine holes at a time. He was a 10. And I would've liked to have played golf with Woodrow Wilson. He liked to play every day. I think we have an image of him that's more dour than he was, so I would have liked to have seen him on the golf course.
Why have so many presidents enjoyed golf?
I think first of all, because it's a friendly game. Secondly, because they're competitive and you're always playing against yourself—no matter whether you're playing with someone better than you are or worse. And, I like it for the same reason a lot of other busy people don't—I like it because it takes so much time.
A lot of days like today, I'll come out here and I may go five holes before I get a good shot. But in the end, you can't do well if you're thinking about anything else. You can't play this game and think about anything else. And also, it's a place where—even though you've got these Secret Service people all around us—this is the nearest I ever am to being like a normal person. I'm alone playing with friends. It reminds me of everything I loved about my childhood and nature.
What's the hardest thing about playing as president?
Clearing your head. Like today, for example [Clinton presided over a National Security Council meeting in the morning]. How well I play now depends much more on whether I spend 30 minutes working out and 30 minutes stretching beforehand. Today I couldn't do either one, because I had to get up and work all day. If I get my stretching in, it adds a huge amount to my distance and accuracy.
Besides the stretching, what do you do to get ready?
Get a little aerobic exercise, enough to break a sweat. Then do about a 10-minute light weight workout and then do 20 to 30 minutes of stretches, and it makes all the difference in the world—ever since I turned 45—but today I didn't do any of that.
In an average month, how often do you get to play?
Probably three times a month, but in the summertime, more. I probably average about five times a month in the summertime.
I practice a lot at the White House on the short game. [Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed a practice green for the president.]
Neither the public nor the press seems to begrudge your playing golf. Why not?
I think because they know I work hard. If they thought I was not putting in my time, it'd be different.
There are lots of times when I almost have to force myself to go, because I really love the work—especially this last year. If it were up to me, I'd never sleep. That's the only thing—I wish I never had to sleep, so I could get as much done as possible. But I realize that coming out here is an important part of my mental health.
How often do you take lessons?
I never really ever took any lessons, except at clubs where there was a teaching pro who sometimes helped me with my grip or my stance or whatever. I'm always looking for instruction. I'm always interested in playing with golfers who are better than I am. But normally, I'm about a 12 [handicap]. I've probably had a dozen or 15 rounds in the 70s. But I'm also liable to have a bad round now and then.
Who was the best teacher you've ever had?
Probably Greg Norman, because the day I played with him, I got out of the car just like I did today and literally walked up to the tee and duck-hooked the ball out-of-bounds. Then the second ball I hit real good, and he said, "Now you've got two choices here. If you want to play and show me that you're a pretty good golfer, I'm going to leave you alone. If you want an 18-hole clinic, I'll give it to you, but you'll shoot a higher score.''
We were at Royal Melbourne [in 1996]. I said, "I want the 18-hole clinic." I learned a lot.
In 1993, I played two days in a row with Jack Nicklaus. I learned quite a lot from him just listening to him. I played with Palmer one day when I was playing terrible, but I putted well. But do you know who I've played with several times and really enjoyed? Amy Alcott. Lovely woman, and I really enjoyed playing with her—a great golfer.
What would you say is the main weakness of your game that you work on?
My biggest weakness used to be my short game, but I've worked hard on trying to make it better. Then after I tore my leg up [in a fall at Norman's home in 1997], I got real weak off the tee. I was used to being very long. So now I'm trying to get it back.
Photo by Joel Page/AP
You've been criticized for taking too many mulligans. When you're playing with friends, what's your mulligan philosophy?
My mulligans are way overrated. I normally don't. I let everyone have one off the first tee, and then normally what I do when I'm playing with people is, I just play around and if somebody makes a terrible shot I say, "Well, take one," and then I give everybody else one. Otherwise there are never more than one a side.
I think some of this got started because I was playing golf with an old friend from Little Rock who wasn't a particularly good golfer, but he was the most fun ever. His theory was that on each side everybody should have a mulligan off the tee, a mulligan off the fairway and a mulligan off the green. And I would play whatever way he wanted to, but normally I don't take them. You know what, it screws your game up. You'd be amazed at how many times you don't get a bit of good out of it.
What was your favorite shot?
It's amazing what you can remember about golf. I've never had a hole-in-one. The closest I ever got was when I was 15. I hit it to an inch away, and I got down and blew on the ball.
Any other memorable shots?
I was governor for 12 years. Even my enemies admit that I work hard, but I'd had one of these days when I was really stressed out and I couldn't take any more, and I canceled two appointments—claimed I didn't feel good.
I went out to the golf course and I found this doctor who was out there taking Thursday afternoon off, and I got him to play with me. There was a 435-yard par 4, and I hit a drive to 175 yards—about 260 yards, I guess—but I was under a tree. I hit a 3-iron off my back foot into the hole. I had an eagle, and I couldn't tell anybody. It was like the minister who plays on Sunday morning. I couldn't tell a soul. At least I had a witness. I wanted to go out and crow about it, but I thought if I go crow, everybody will know I didn't do what I was supposed to do.
What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on the golf course?
I was playing one time with the [then] governor of Hawaii, John Waihee, about 15 years ago on Mauna Lani or Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and instead of sand traps they have all this broken molten lava. So he says to me, "Hit the ball a little right of center." I hit it a long way, but it drifted over and got in this lava and disappeared, but I couldn't see the lava before I hit the shot. I looked over and said, "Why didn't you tell me there was lava over there?" And he said, "You didn't ask."
So then Waihee is explaining to me that he's a direct descendant of King Kamehameha, who unified the Hawaiian islands, and that they really believe in ancestor guardians so you can continue the spirit. Anyway, he gets up to hit and he hit the ball exactly where I hit mine—exactly. But his hit the lava and bounced out into the middle of the fairway, and he looked over at me and said: "I told you." And I said, "Where do I convert?"
What about as president?
I had a great day when I played with [writer] Rick Reilly, when they covered me for Sports Illustrated. We played Congressional. I think I had 82 or 83 that day. I nearly whiffed the ball off the second tee. It was a par 3, and I hit it about 12 yards, and then he said, "Do you want a mulligan?" and I said, "No, this is for Sports Illustrated. No extra shots." So, then I hit it in the trap, but I got up and in for a bogey.
Do people send you a lot of golf stuff?
Oh, I've got all kinds of bizarre putters, and a driver called the Russian Peace Missile made from old nuclear missile parts.
Someone made a driver for you?
No, it's a commercial thing. They gave me 10, and I gave a lot of them to friends of mine.
What other crazy things have people sent?
Decorated drivers of all kinds, putters with weird shafts and bizarre heads and putters with grips this big around. Everybody who ever had an idea about putters, you know, putters you can hardly get your hand around. And lots of golf balls—with my picture on them, Hillary's picture, Newt Gingrich's picture.
Do Hillary or Chelsea ever play?
No. Chelsea actually took some lessons in high school once, but I think she just never got into it. She was into her ballet all the time. Now, she basically likes to jog and work out. When I get out of office, I can start jogging with her again. Hillary normally will play once a year just to humor me—normally when the weather's bad and nobody else will play with me. She'll wear one of her little Nanook of the North outfits and we'll go out and play.
Have you ever played with foreign leaders?
I've played with [Canadian Prime Minister Jean] Chretien several times. I've played with prime minister Goh [Chok Tong] of Singapore—good man. Once I played six holes of golf with Tony Blair—he'd never played before. At Chequers [the British Prime Minister's version of Camp David], there's an old course. We played six holes, and here's the deal I made with him: He'd never held a club before, but he's a pretty good athlete, so I said, "Tony, I'll hit a drive for both of us. You play the better drive. You hold the club like I tell you, and swing it like I tell you." He made four pars, a bogey and a double bogey—and he'd never played before. We had to quit after six holes. But he literally went four pars, a bogey and a double bogey. Just took the drive I hit. Everything else he did himself. It makes me think I've got a second career as a golf teacher.
What are your favorite courses?
Ballybunion. They asked me what my handicap was, and at the time I was playing pretty good, and I said I don't know, maybe 12 to 13. They said, "How many links courses have you played?" I said, "Two." They said, "Good. We're taking 20-to-1 odds you can't break 100." So I was 10 over for 15 holes and 13 over for the last three. I was playing with Christy O'Connor. Howling wind. I made 7 on the first hole, then I made 10 on a par 4. I kept going back and forth, back and forth. Otherwise I played well. So I won. I was 23 over—95.
What are your other favorites?
I like Pebble Beach. I love the Hawaiian courses. I played that new Rees Jones Nantucket course, and it was really good. I liked the University of New Mexico course [Championship Course]—it's a great course. I like Robert Trent Jones [Golf Club]. I liked Caves Valley, but it was hard. And I like the old Army Navy courses [the other is in Arlington, Va.]—short, but there are no level lies.
What sorts of people do you like to play golf with?
With people who love the game, and who are enjoying learning it. And I like to play golf with people like Erskine Bowles [former Clinton chief of staff], who's a little better than me. I'm always playing better when I play with them.
What do you learn about people from playing golf with them?
Golf is like life in a lot of ways: The most important competition is the one against yourself. All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted. And you get a lot of breaks you don't deserve—both ways. So it's important not to get too upset when you're having a bad day.
What do you think you'll do post-presidency?
I really don't know. We know that whatever happens in the election [Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign] that we'll be at our new home there in Chappaqua [in Westchester County, N.Y.] for a good while. I love that house. I just love it. But it's like every 111-year-old farmhouse: It eats money. But it's great. I almost bought a house on Winged Foot, on the course. It was a beautiful piece of property, but the house needed more work than we could afford.
Are you hurt by stories of people who say they would never want you in their country club after you retire?
I frankly took that as a badge of honor, because if you go back to the history of golf, in the beginning golf was not an elite game. I've got a 100-year-old history of golf that a friend of mine bought me at a book auction. And I went back and read the whole thing about Scotland and how it all got started. There were rules, and clubs were prickly about the rules, but it had nothing to do with the economic status of the people who were playing.
I feel sorry for people who believe that they have to define themselves by whether they're in a club or not. So that doesn't bother me. I remember once when I got beat for Congress, they vetoed me for the Fayetteville [Ark.] Rotary Club. That didn't bother me, either. I think that one of the reasons I've had some success here is that ordinary people know that I don't look down on them and I'm kind of pulling for them and that I'm always on their side and that I know, but for a couple of breaks the other way, I'd be home doing deeds and divorces. So it never bothers me.
__When you think about your post-presidency, what model do you have in mind? __
Well, President Carter—the things he's done are most like the things I want to do. But I want to be scrupulously careful not to be under the foot of the next president. A country can't have more than one president at a time, and I don't want to do anything that would interfere... I'm very sensitive about that, whether it's President Gore or President Bush.
I told Al Gore that when he gets elected, "I'll go to funerals for you, I'll do whatever you want me to do, but I won't get in your way."
Does Gore play golf?
You know, he tried to learn, and started playing a little bit because of his son. He's got a wonderful, wonderful young son, a fine athlete.
Anyone you haven't played golf with?
Well, I've never played with Tiger Woods. I've never played with David Duval. I'd like to play with them. I'd like to play with Vijay Singh, Nick Faldo. Nick Price.
Do you read golf books, golf magazines?
I read golf magazines on Air Force One once in a while, good articles. But I love good golf novels like The Legend of Bagger Vance. And I like old golf books, like I read Ernest Jones' book and Walter Hagen's old golf book. I love those old books. I read Ben Hogan's book.
Do you watch much golf on TV?
Yes, lots. We don't have The Golf Channel at the White House, but we do in our new New York house. When I was just in Japan for the G-8 summit [an economic conference involving a Group of Eight countries], I saw the British Open one night when I couldn't sleep. It came on at midnight. But when Hillary's gone a lot now, I watch a lot of stuff late at night.
What are your thoughts on Tiger? Some bookmaker is already taking bets on whether he runs for president.
I called him after he won the U.S. Open. First of all, I think he's going to lift the level of the game. I read an article the other day about a 14- or 15-year-old Chinese-American boy in California who shot a 59 at a public course, and how long he was hitting the ball. I think with Tiger and Duval doing these two-hour workouts a day, they're going to make golf more athletic. And as you have more athletic players, then I think you're going to have people hitting the ball longer and more accurately. And that's going to be a real challenge for golf course designers.
Woods reminded me of when Daly won the British Open at St. Andrews. He just overpowered the course. Woods has a much more regular game, so he won by even more. He's got more discipline, he's got all the shots. But I think that he'll lead to much better-conditioned golfers, and I think he'll also lead to more different kinds of people wanting to play golf—not only young people of color but even young white middle-class kids, or lower-income kids, who'd never think of playing golf, will think they can now.
Is golf still a Republican game?
No. I think it was, more or less, when I was a kid, because there were so few municipal courses. We had a little nine-hole course in my hometown, just a little flat open course that was in the middle of the racetrack. And then they got more concerned about money and put stands in the middle of the racetrack and took the nine-hole course out. But it was great when I was a kid in the '50s and early '60s to go and play there. They had two country clubs. They didn't cost much to join, and there were some semi-middle class there. But now there are so many great public courses that it can really be a middle-class game.
Were you upset when some of the pro golfers on the U.S. Ryder Cup team said they didn't want to shake your hand at a White House reception?
No, it doesn't hurt my feelings. You know, that only happened once, and that was right after we passed the 1993 economic plan and I told them—it's funny—when we passed it, I said the one group this is most unfair to is professional athletes, because they don't get to play very long and so they have to accumulate funds, and income-tax rates are too high. I knew that business people would do much better. So I didn't take it personally at all.
Have you used golf to break down walls with political opponents?
Oh, yes. I wish I'd played with more members of Congress. I played with [former representative Bob] Livingston one day and really enjoyed it. But I played with a lot of business types, you know, people who I've made friends with.
Is there any legislation you've enacted that has had an impact on golf?
I don't know whether any of the legislation we enacted did, but I do think that one of the things I like is that golf course designers are becoming much more environmentally sensitive. For example, there's now a third 18-hole course at Andrews Air Force Base. It's actually quite good. It's called the South Course. The other courses are just basically good service-base courses. This is a good golf course. Because it's built on wetlands, there are a lot of holes where if you hit the ball in there you can't go get it. They won't let you take a step in the wetland.
Do you have any views on the governing of golf, particularly the technology debate?
I think what's going to happen is that golf courses are going to have to be designed and redesigned so that length alone can't guarantee you a great score. That's basically what I think.
Should there be separate sets of rules for pros and amateurs?
I don't know how I feel about that. I just know that you ought to get some reward for distance, but it shouldn't take away everything else.
Do you ever lose a golf ball with all these Secret Service agents around?
Yeah. If I hit them out-of-bounds or in the water. Once in a while they'll see one. But they're not really supposed to pay attention to the ball—they're supposed to be looking around. But a lot of these guys play golf, so they'll watch.
One of these guys in a golf cart behind us has the nuclear codes in case the U.S. is attacked and needs to retaliate. Do you ever think about him being back there?
No, not really. We've got a secure phone, though, and I've taken a lot of phone calls from other heads of state on the golf course.
[At this point the president gives Friedman a chipping lesson that Dave Pelz gave to him for producing a low, running shot across the green.]
You seem to internalize a lot of these lessons you've had.
Yeah, I do. It's fun for me. I like learning things. One of the reasons I love being president is that there's always something to learn. I don't think a president needs to be a genius, but a president needs to be curious and have a lot of good common sense.
Do think you'll ever play golf with Castro?
Does he play? Now, that would be interesting. You know, if he hadn't shot those planes down [Cuban MIG's downed two unarmed U.S. civilian planes in 1996], we'd be in a different place with him today. It was all going that way [toward improved relations]. You see all the sentiment [for improved relations with Cuba] in Congress now. A lot of my younger friends in the Cuban-American community in Miami were ambivalent about the Elian thing, I think. They believe that if they could go over there and invest, they could change Cuba quicker. They also believe that Castro is just like all the rest of us: We're all term-limited. One way or other we're all term-limited.
If all the world's leaders played golf, would it be a better world?
Well, I think it might be a little more relaxed. I think golf is a game, when you're playing with other people, that's sort of filled with respect and a sense of common humanity. And I think that it's harder to deny the validity of your playing partner's existence. So if people played golf more with their adversaries I think it'd be better, because they'd still have differences that would be sharp and profound, but there'd be a little more empathy. It'd be good.
The Clinton File
Handicap:"Normally I'm about a 12."
Golf frequency: "Probably three times a month, but in the summertime, more... about five times a month."
Equipment: Titleist 975D driver with a 7.5-degree loft (during our visit he was also testing one of the USGA-banned Callaway ERC drivers), Ping i3 3-wood, PowerBilt 4-wood that he has had since high school and recently had refinished, Wilson FS Fat Shaft irons (3-iron through sand wedge), Odyssey Rossie II putter.