Golfers Who Give BackOctober 27, 2014

Q&A With George W. Bush

President George W. Bush with military veterans US Army SSgt. Dan Nevins, left, and North Carolina National Guard SSgt. Dale Beatty, during the Warrior Open in 2011.

Golf Digest honors President George W. Bush in the December 2014 issue as a Golfer Who Gives Back, for his involvement in the Bush Institute's Military Service Initiative. Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde interviewed the president on Oct. 1 at his Warrior Open at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas.

GD: Why did you start your Military Service Initiative?

GWB: I feel a special kinship for our military. Because, unfortunately, I became a wartime president. And committed our military in the defense of our country to difficult assignments. I tell people all the time, I don't miss much about being president; I do miss looking in the eyes of people who volunteered to serve. And so not only do I feel a kinship, I feel an obligation and a duty to help. Our Military Service Initiative is a way to contribute to the betterment of our military and to remind Americans what an obligation we owe them, whether it be helping them find work, or dealing with their head injuries, or being kind, or housing issues. And we've got some interesting studies going on at the [Bush] Center, along with Syracuse University, for example. You know there is a language barrier between vets and the civilian population. They speak different languages. And we are gonna try and help employers, for example, to better understand skill sets of the vets. And the vets better understand how to speak the language of employers, to then get better jobs. But golf is something I love. It's been a part of my family's history. And I figured that golf would be a good way, a good platform, to honor the groups helping vets and to show Americans that, you know, many Americans think their life is miserable. Well, here's somebody whose life actually is really miserable, and yet they've overcome it through sport. And that's why we did the MSI, as well as the golf tournament.

GD: Golf Digest just published a piece on the subject of grit. There's a body of work in education today that talks about how overcoming adversity, keeping optimistic in the face of difficulty, is the real secret of success. That seems to be right in line with what you're doing.

GWB: You have to be optimistic about golf. I mean it's physically demanding, particularly if you're on one leg. But it's psychologically demanding regardless of your physical infirmities. I mean, it's a tough sport. You've got to be disciplined and optimistic. And if you have a bad hole, you've got to be optimistic that you'll do well on the next hole. And these golfers out here today are optimistic guys. And they don't complain. And you know, some friends of mine, or some people I know, they say, "Don't you feel terrible about the injuries inflicted upon these golfers?" I say, of course I do. But obviously, they haven't talked to some of these men or women who say, "I'd do it again. And I don't regret. I'm gonna live my life to the fullest. And golf has helped." It has helped them recover.

GD: Could you talk about that? How is golf used in the rehab?

GWB: Golf is used in the rehab because it gives people a purpose. You know, you can either sit around and be full of self-pity and stay on drugs that are prescribed to help you over your injuries. Or you can rehab as quickly as you can and get outside. And hit the golf ball. And use golf as a motivational tool to live life. And, who knows, I've advocated golf not only as a lifetime sport, but it's also a bridge toward the healing process that will enable them to live productive lives. And if you talk to them, you'll find they have overcome incredible hardship, but they're optimistic about their future. And many of them have used golf as a way to meet new people and to find work and to help heal themselves. At ClubCorp of America here [owners of Las Colinas], it gives each one of these participants a free membership in their [200] clubs around the country. And they've taken advantage of it, of course. So one guy here who is not playing this year, he is a caddie, but has played in a couple of years, he said, "It's been awesome coming out here. The membership has been fantastic." Now he plays with people he would never have met. And his family is helped as a result of the kindness of the members. And there is example after example of golf reintroducing people into the communities in which they live. So catch this. You know the tournament out there in Lake Tahoe? [American Century Celebrity Golf Championship] So I give a speech out there. It's part of my way to make a living. And the CEO [Jonathan Thomas] is a really good guy. And I said, "You know, we've got this golf tournament". And I described the Warrior Open. And he said, "Why don't you announce that the winner of your tournament will automatically qualify for the Tahoe tournament?" And so I get an email from a guy, I think it was last spring, and he says, "Pfeiffer is on the tube." I couldn't believe it. I turn on the tube. The announcer says, "And now hitting in second place in this tournament behind Mark Rypien, and tied with so-and-so, is Chad Pfeiffer." And so Pfeiffer, who is a very good golfer, on one leg, is in this tournament. And I think he ended up third.

GD: He said, before we took the picture [that accompanied the article in the magazine], that he's playing some mini-tour events. I just thought he was a golfer. I didn't realize he was a player.

GWB: He's a really good player. It's remarkable. One of the most fun things I did was at the Presidents Cup. Tim Finchem asked me to come to the cup. Or maybe I invited myself, I'm not sure. Anyway, I went. And I asked him if I could bring the winner of the Warrior Open. And he said sure. So Pfeiffer and I fly up to Columbus, Ohio. And at the opening ceremony, there are two captains, the commissioner, myself and Pfeiffer introduced to the crowd as a winner of the Warrior Open. And it was just awesome. I mean awesome to see this kid, you know.

GD: That's great. He seems like a special guy.

GWB: He is. They all are. They really are. What I love is the fact that probably six or seven of them out there, who didn't qualify for this year's tournament, came back anyway. They had played before, and they wanted to root on their buddies they had met.

GD: Mr. President, a broader question about golf. Golf raises $4 billion annually through events on Mondays down the street at local public courses and all over. It's more than all other sports combined in terms of fundraising for charity and good causes. Why is that about golfers?

GWB: It's interesting. First of all, golf is a game of integrity. And golf is a game of forgiveness. I think the high standards of golf remind people of how lucky they are, or how fortunate they are, to be able to play the game. And many people, when they have this sense of good luck or good draw of the cards, know they have an obligation to give back. And plus they're doing good leadership with golf. I mean, when you have golfers saying to other golfers to give, or the commissioner of golf dedicated to raising good money, or you see people touting The First Tee, of which you and I are involved, it causes others to say, "Let's use golf." I know this guy, [Major Dan] Rooney, who's in Folds of Honor, and he was the [founder] of the tournament where they take one dollar of the green fees on Labor Day and put it into a college scholarship fund. And, you know, I checked it out. Low overhead, high response to the vets and their families for college scholarships. And so another reason why golf works is because there are a lot of people who participated who didn't take big bucks to generate pretty good purses on behalf of charities. And it's a convenient way to raise money as well. People like to play golf. The golf courses are very generous, and they say, "Come and we'll open up our course for you for your charity." And so it's a good vehicle as well. A good platform.

GD: Suffer me a philosophical question. We've asked the question often. Why is golf like life? We did an interview with President Clinton when he was leaving office, and he said along the lines of what you are saying, "You get some breaks that you don't deserve."

GWB: Well, you get some breaks you don't deserve, but you also have to overcome adversity. There's a lot of adversity in life. That's why this tournament is special to me. These men have overcome incredible adversity. And it's the same in golf, obviously on a much minor scale. But you hit a good drive [and get a] bad bounce. And you can either be hot about it or you can deal with it. And you know, there are times when I get hot about it and therefore don't do well. That's what life's about. I tell this to people all the time. You know, something is going to happen to you that you don't want to happen to you. And again, I repeat, golf is on a much minor scale. But nevertheless, the question is, how do you deal with that adversity? I think that's what golf is. It also teaches you honesty. It teaches you discipline. It gives you a strong appreciation of nature. And personal responsibility, something that lacks in our society at times. I mean, it's only your fault, you can't blame anyone else when you shank it. Or pick the wrong club.

GD: Tell me about your golf. How much are you playing?

GWB: Well, I'm not. I got two new knees this year, starting in May.

GD: Both at once?

GWB: No, one at a time... Partial replacements. But I hadn't really swung a golf club until from May 22 on, until maybe 10 days ago. And I'm hitting it OK. Decent.

GD: You had gotten to a single-figure handicap?

GWB: Yeah, I did. I did for a while. But I bounce around.

GD: What are you now, do you think?

GWB: You know, I don't know. I just haven't played enough. I would say 12. But I intend to get it back down. But when I have a chance to play, I have fun. One of the genetic flaws is that speed matters on the golf course, which affects your golf game. So I'm actually taking a practice swing occasionally just to slow myself down. But I've got some pals I play with. And fortunately a member—honorary, I might add--of six clubs in Dallas, so I play around. I pretty much play when others don't.

GD: Are you an early player? A late player?

GWB: It really depends. You know, I love early. I played with two buddies the other day. We each had a golf cart. We played in about 2:15. And just flew. We obviously wanted to play well, but there's something good about moving through the golf course. And five-hour rounds drive me nuts.

GD: Well, the Bush family has always been known for speed golf.

GWB: That's why I said it was a genetic flaw. It doesn't actually help your game. When I played in Maine, my sister's daughter got married at a wonderful course called Cape Arundel. And a couple of my brothers and I, Jeb and Marvin and Jeb's son, Jeb, played. And it was really fun. I mean it's a wonderful family activity. A little tense because we're slightly competitive people. But it was great fun to be out there. And some of my fondest memories are playing golf with my dad.

GD: Can you give me an example of a memory you have?

GWB: Well, when I was a kid, I remember he was a big, long hitter. He was a good athlete. You know, I took great pride when he cut the corner [of a dogleg]. But in Maine when he was president, he really wanted to be with his family and try to get away from everything. And of course you can't. Because when you play golf the press corps is allowed to be, not on the course, but on the first tee. So I remember we'd pull up, and they'd say, "What about Israel?" or "What about this?" or "What about that issue?" And we'd all hit and try to get out of the way. But memories revolve around who he'd play golf with. And so he became very close friends with Mickelson, Couples, Davis Love, Brad Faxon. And he would invite them up to Maine. I got to play golf with some of those guys. And they're so fond of Dad that it's kind of spilled over to my brothers and me. So if they're around, they want to play with us. Which is fun to play with really good golfers.

GD: That's great. I remember reading a very poignant story about Eisenhower, who obviously had an obsession with the game. He played 800 rounds in office.

GWB: Wow. A lot of them with my grandfather.

GD: Really?

GWB: Prescott S. Bush. He was a president of the USGA and a scratch golfer most of his life. Shot his age. A really good golfer. He and I were playing partners at Burning Tree.

GD: The story that I've heard is that when Eisenhower was recovering from one of his heart attacks, George Shultz went to see him. And you may know it.

GWB: No, I don't know it.

GD: And Eisenhower, in the course of their conversation, said to Schultz that in the service of your country, you may think you're doing the right thing by working 100 hours a week, but you will not do your country right if you don't take time for yourself.

GWB: I agree with that. And I chose not to play because during my presidency after a period of time, a short period of time. I chose not to play because my view was I could find other ways to be by myself, like mountain biking. And I didn't want to send a signal to mothers whose sons were in combat that while they were sacrificing, I was on the golf course. And as much as I missed it, I didn't view it as a sacrifice at all to give up golf. And the reason you have to do that when you are president, or at least I did, is because [the media is] on the first tee and the 18th green. And there's no way you escape the press, and I didn't want to try. And so I chose not to do it. But I agree with the sense that, as the president, you're pretty much in a bubble. And golf is a good way to get out of the bubble. And as I said, in my case, it was mountain biking. And our presidents have used golf, our current president uses golf, Bill Clinton used golf, Eisenhower used golf, Dad used golf to a certain extent, but he also loved to fish. So there are multiple ways to escape. It's important to clear your head as best as you can. So Eisenhower's advice is good advice.

GD: Best tip you've ever had?

GWB: Well, play fast, son, because the good players will play with you. Implying, of course, that I wasn't a good player [Laughs]. You know I get a lot of tips. I play with Trevino, who is awesome. And David Graham. So I play with them a fair number of times at Preston Trail. And they're constantly giving me tips. My best tip to them is, if I want a lesson, I'll pay for one. [Laughs.] That's kinda rude. Keep your lower body still on your chips. Keep your head still on putts. Get on the left side.

GD: All good ones.

GWB: They're good, except it's hard for me to remember them all. And it's like the guy said, "Son, keep your nose to the grindstone, eye on the ball, and shoulder to the wheel." And he looked at his mother and said, "Well, how can I do anything in that position?"