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January 21 2012

7:39 PM

Clinton conquers first tee jitters

Poroy

UPDATE: President Bill Clinton and Greg Norman were in the 10th fairway on the Palmer Course at PGA West when play was suspended due to high winds on Saturday. In an attempt to complete all 72 holes by Sunday evening, tournament officials decided only the pros will return to complete the third round at 7:30 a.m. PT (10:30 a.m. ET) Sunday. So Clinton and Norman will not be able to finish their round.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- As President Bill Clinton waited to tee off in the third round of the Humana Challenge, one of the fans in the stands took the opportunity to loudly compliment his shoes.

The white adidas with the red and blue stripes across the middle and that tiny American flag on the side were a birthday present several years ago, Clinton told her.

"They're the best part of my game," he said amiably and the crowd, which was hanging on the 42nd President's every move, laughed heartily.

"You haven't seen me play yet," Clinton said good-naturedly, egging on the fans, who stood four deep on the first tee of the Palmer Course at PGA West.

All those Democrats and Republicans in attendance didn't have to wait too much longer. About five minutes later the man who was introduced as "formerly of Washington, D.C., Mr. William Jefferson Clinton" stepped confidently to the tee and sent his drive airborne into the left rough.

Clinton appeared as comfortable inside the ropes Saturday as he's been outside them all week long. He patiently signed autographs, making a personal connection with nearly every person who thrust a program, book or golf ball in his hand.

When one fan told Clinton he'd served at Fort Stewart, as well as in Kosovo, the President said earnestly, "Thank you for going there." He waved to the wait staff at the Championship Lounge as they stood at the back door applauding as he walked to the practice tee.

Clinton was playing Saturday to an 18 handicap, which is the maximum allowed for the tournament. He hit a variety of shots on the range, often to the left and occasionally dribbled off the tee, which only added to his humanity. When defending champion Jhonattan Vegas came up to shake Clinton's hand, the President offered up a golfer's common lament: "the older I get the harder it is for me to turn."

At one point on the practice green, Clinton rolled in a long putt that drew a shriek from the crowd and some polite applause. The 42nd President turned to his partner for the day, Greg Norman, and said, "I just made a putt for us." Meanwhile, PGA TOUR media official Mark Stevens noted that Mark Wilson, who was tied for the overnight lead, was 4 under through four holes but there wasn't a mass exodus to La Quinta -- yet.

Later, as Clinton liberally applied a shield of sunscreen on an increasing bright morning, he looked over at the crowd. "Greg Norman didn't realize how geriatric I'd become since the last time I played golf with him," Clinton said with a chuckle.

The two are good friends who talk several times a year but they had only played golf together once prior to Saturday. That came in Australia in 1994 while Clinton was still in office -- a date Norman almost didn't keep because he didn't agree with the Democrat’s politics. President George H.W. Bush urged Norman to respect the office, though, and the friendship was born.

As the foursome -- which also included Humana CEO Mike McCallister and PGA TOUR veteran Scott McCarron -- assembled for the obligatory first-tee photos, Clinton, who had been over shaking hands with several fans in wheelchairs on a platform reserved for handicapped patrons,  realized he didn't have a club. So Norman, who had been briefly serenaded with "Waltzing Matilda," handed the former Chief Executive his driver.

"I can't hit his club," Clinton said, laughing.

Norman hit his drive into the first cut on the left side of the fairway. McCarron, who has a home in La Quinta and  protested when he was introduced as being from Reno, Nev., -- "That is just for tax purposes," he joked --  outdrove Norman and found the left fairway bunker. "Great shot, Scottie," Norman yelled the instant the ball was struck, striding quickly to the next tee for the main event.

Norman and McCarron ended up making a pars. Clinton hit his second shot just short of the green, then chipped on and three-putted from 25 feet for a double bogey that McCallister matched.

And with that the high-powered foursome was off. The many fans who followed narrowly missed meeting another legend, too – Arnold Palmer was patiently posing for pictures with fans and signing autographs as he headed out to see his grandson, Sam Saunders, make the turn.

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