Out of office, Clinton finds time to promote health, golf

January 17, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- There was a time when "Saturday Night Live" famously made jokes about then-President Bill Clinton's penchant for politicking and pigging out at various fast food restaurants.


A decade out of office now, though, Clinton is 25 pounds lighter and nearly a complete vegetarian after the wake-up call of quadruple bypass surgery in 2004. Health has replaced hamburgers as the 65-year-old's passion, and the 42nd President has found a unique partnership to advance his goal of participatory wellness at this week's year's Humana Challenge.

The politician-turned-humanitarian is the host of the PGA TOUR event once known as the Bob Hope Classic and now held in partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation. He will deliver the keynote address at a far-reaching conference here on Tuesday designed to promote healthy behavioral changes.


But there will be time for some fun, too.

Clinton, who became the only sitting President to play in the long-time PGA TOUR event in 1995, plans to partner with Greg Norman during Saturday's third round of the Humana Challenge. The pairing is sure to make headlines -- and fuel traffic jams -- just as Clinton did 17 years ago when he played with the comic legend, two other former Presidents, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, and TOUR veteran Scott Hoch.

During an exclusive roundtable with seven members of the national media at the Harlem offices of his foundation last fall, the former Chief Executive appeared extremely relaxed as he alternately discussed wellness issues as well as the state of his game.

Clinton said he was a 10 handicap his first year out of office. But the President said he doesn't get to play that much now and his game, once reputed to be fueled by a liberal use of mulligans, has suffered.

"I'm not very good anymore," Clinton said in that unmistakable husky drawl of his. "Haiti just about ruined my golf game ... I saw President Bush, George W. Bush and I were doing this project in Haiti, and he was ragging me. He said 'I'm down to a 10 now.' I was there my first year after office.

"I said you're just going to have to resist the temptation to do good," Clinton added, laughing. "I said you start traveling and it will wreck you because we're the same age. He said he played like four times a week and he's in good shape, so we have a good time playing."

Clinton has no shortage of high-powered partners when he can play, though. He said he enjoyed a round last fall with the current President, Barack Obama. Both were extremely busy -- Clinton with his Global Initiative conference and Obama with the United Nations -- but the two found time to make it happen.


"There were times when I was President that I would go five holes before I hit a decent shot and before I could sort of flush my head," Clinton said as he talked about playing a wet course that surrendered no roll and shooting a 92 that was a couple of shots in arrears to Obama.

"You can't play golf and do something else. It's a head game as much as anything else ... So I liked seeing him on the golf course because he was totally at peace, relaxed. He Went up and greeted everybody, shook hands with everybody that were standing around the course and everything. It was a very good day."

Clinton, who once played two days in a row with Jack Nicklaus, said his dream foursome would include Bobby Jones and Harry Vardon, "whose golf books I have read and actually have two of them in the first edition," the President said. "He was a smart rascal."

Sam Snead would probably complete the foursome. "When he was 82, he wanted me to play with him, and he said he would not take more than a thousand dollars from me," Clinton said, chuckling.

The former Chief Executive said he would love to play Pine Valley and Augusta National -- although the lack of female members at the course that hosts the Masters doesn't sit well with his wife Hillary, the current Secretary of State, or their daughter Chelsea. Bandon Dunes is also on his bucket list, and Clinton wouldn't mind going back to St. Andrews, either.

Norman and Fred Couples, the two Presidents Cup captains, are among Clinton's favored playing partners. He enjoys teeing it up with Amy Alcott, too -- "She gets mad if I outdrive her, and I like that," Clinton said. He remembers playing with Adam Scott when he was still a student at UNLV and with Tiger Woods on the course where he grew up playing -- Clinton still recalls three-putting nine greens that day.

"I played with Luke Donald and Michael Jordan once at Conway Farms outside Chicago, and I got up on the blue tees and Jordan was standing back on the pro tee," Clinton recalled. "I was 61 years old, and he said, 'You're going to play from the little girls tee?' I said, OK, Jordan. He said if you play here and you break a hundred, that will be good. So I did that. So he had a 76.

"And I said I knew Luke, if he could ever get in the zone, was going to do well."

Well, indeed. Donald is now the world's No. 1 golfer and the reigning PGA TOUR Player of the Year.

The former President has been a fan of Bryce Molder, who got his breakthrough victory during last year's Fall Series, ever since they played together in 1999 when Clinton worked in the Oval Office and the TOUR veteran was still a student at Georgia Tech. Molder shot a 60 that day at his home course, Chenal Country Club in Little Rock, Ark. -- although Clinton, another Arkansas native, thought it was a 59.

"I realized if he ever got his mojo going, he'd be good," Clinton said. "You know who (else) I like playing with? Sean Fister, who won the long driving championship. I mean, it's amazing playing with a guy that every third time he hit it, it's 400 yards.

"When you play with a pro, you're on a normal course, and you sort of feel bad when he outdrives you a hundred yards. When you play with Sean, he's so massive, it's like, okay. You can't even see the ball."

Clinton had a similar problem the day he made his only hole-in-one. The ace came at Harborside International, a links-style course in Chicago that was built on a landfill. He used a 9-iron on the short par 3 and "the hole was behind the hump so I didn't get to see the ball go in," Clinton recalled as he quickly added that he's also had two eagles on par-4s.

"But I've only hit one hole-in-one," he said wistfully. "I left one on the rim when I was 15, and I got down and blew on it, and it still didn't go in."

Sometimes even Presidents don't get the right roll.