You are looking at a man whose Bubble Shaft was nearly wrestled
to the ground by Secret Service agents. You are looking at a man
who called the most powerful man on the planet "babe." You are
looking at a man who has survived Bubba golf.
The idea was to tee it up with President Bill Clinton, golfing
conundrum--an Oxford man with a publinx soul, a guy who looks as
if he might putt with his glove on, swear over a game of Bingo
Bango Bongo and pull a cold beer out of his bag at the 5th hole.
I wanted to know if he really did carry 19 clubs in his bag,
take more mulligans than the entire field of the Killarney Elks
Invitational and would rather buy a $398 Monster Martha driver
than spend $35 on a half-hour lesson from his local
professional. In other words, I wanted to find out if he was
So, after almost a year of asking, waiting, reasking, waiting,
begging, waiting, scheduling and hoping, I reserved a room at a
Washington-area hotel for Friday night, May 26, because the
White House had said that possibly, perhaps, barring unforeseen
schedule changes, I would play golf with the President the next
morning. When I checked in that night, my little red light was
on. Of all the little red lights I've had in all the hotels in
all the world, the greatest of all was this one.
Be at the White House at 8 a.m.
White House deputy chief of staff Erskine Bowles and SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED managing editor Mark Mulvoy would be in the foursome
with us. Taking the motorcade there. To Congressional Country
Club. Comped. Is that any good?
Golf is like bicycle shorts. It reveals a lot about people. And
presidents. What would it reveal about Clinton?
Rain wasn't going to kill the day. Clinton has been known to
play in high wind, rain and sleet. Once he supposedly finished
18 with ice on his irons. "He'll drag me out for nine, 10, 11
holes in the late afternoon," Bowles told me before the round,
"make us play until it's dark. Until after it's dark. Then we go
back to work." Clinton started playing golf at age 12 and
caddied as a teenager in Hot Springs, Ark. He entered the White
House as a 16 handicap, but I'd heard he was down to a 13 now,
which would put him in a league with our finest golfing
president, John Kennedy. I'd also heard that the 13 was phonier
than Cheez Whiz and that he would probably go out and shoot
himself a radio station--a Magic 102 or a Zoo 105.
I wanted to find out all of this for myself, as well as, I
admit, tear off a swatch of the presidency. Ever since the
second grade, I've loved the presidency. Didn't matter who was
in office, it was royalty to me. I wanted to touch the spike
marks Ike left in the Oval Office floor. I wanted to sit in
front of FDR's fireplace in a cardigan. I wanted to rub up
against Gerald Ford's toaster.
After ironing my shirt three times and my pants twice, laying my
socks in my shoes two different ways, not sleeping, putting in
the room at 3 a.m., ordering room service at 6:01 and then
actually ironing my sweater, I finally arrived at the White
House at quarter to eight. After the Secret Service had checked
under our rental car with mirrors and in the trunk and in the
golf bags, and after Mulvoy and I had each shown our driver's
licenses three times, we were finally allowed up the South Lawn
drive. A gaggle of agents waited for us.
"You didn't have to go to all that trouble," I said, trying to
break the tension. "We could've just hopped the fence like
everybody else." Exactly nobody laughed.
At 9:15 there was a rush of people into the Diplomatic Reception
Room, where we were waiting--a valet named Lito, steely Secret
Service types, a photographer, a press aide and a few others.
Then somebody said, "The President is coming," and suddenly he
was there, shaking our hands, much taller and sturdier than I
expected, with pale blue eyes and a deluxe set of gray hair that
was still a little wet from a morning workout and shower
upstairs. This was not a guy who looks as if he IV's from a
McDonald's fry vat. He looked more like the high school
linebacker you kept secretly hoping would show up fat at class
reunions but never did. The President wore khakis, loafers,
white socks and a blue golf shirt that was maybe too tight for
him, which old football players will do, with a Camp David logo
and the presidential seal on the left breast.
He invited us to ride in the presidential limo, a Cadillac
Fleetwood, for the 15-minute ride to Congressional, in
Bethesda, Md. I got in the jump seat directly across from him,
and our knees were jammed together. There was a large, black,
nylon bag sitting between us, which I figured had the red phone
or, at least, a retractable bazooka inside, but then he opened
it and said, "Anybody like some hot tea or juice or, let's see,
there's fruit in here." Not exactly John le Carre stuff.
We were the heart of a convoy of six police cars, six black
Suburban vans, an ambulance and three motorcycle cops blocking
traffic on the narrower streets, taking up the two right lanes
on the highways, with our escorts' lights running but their
sirens silent. I asked the President if he ever putts on the
Oval Office rug. No, he said, but he and the USGA have restored
the original Eisenhower putting green. It sits not 50 paces from
his office door. He also sneaks out now and again and blasts
drives from one end of the South Lawn to the other. "It's 300
yards," he said, beaming, "and one time my ball stopped eight
yards from the fence."
When we arrived, Clinton swung his legs out, and somebody handed
him his white Softspiked golf shoes. He put them on right there,
which only shows that no matter how high up you get in this
world, you still have to change your shoes in the parking lot.
The course was not closed to other golfers because of the
presidential outing. According to assistant pro Brian Kiger, the
President is among the select group of dignitaries who have
playing privileges at Congressional without being members or
paying. "He'll probably only play out here four times this
year," said Kiger. "If it was too much more than that, he might
start hearing it from people."
We did not have a tee time. But somehow Congressional squeezed
us in. The club did not stop foursomes from playing ahead of us,
but with about eight Secret Service agents with us, I got the
feeling playing through would be no problem.
I was wrong about Clinton playing with 19 clubs, but it looked
like at least 18. Apparently he has vetoed the 14-club limit for
life. He carries Henry-Griffitts custom-made irons, a bunch of
Callaway metal woods, including the HeavenWood and the club he
drives with, the $500 Great Big Bertha. He told me he just
recently stopped carrying his juiced-up, oversized Master
Blaster, which was two inches longer than most drivers and was
hook-faced to correct his slice and apparently fell under the
assault weapons ban. Yet, despite all the techie stuff, the
President putts with an old Bullseye that looks like it was
lifted from a Little Rock putt putt. "I must have 30 putters,"
he said, "but I like this one."
He has a serviceable swing, though maybe he's a little too
upright and a little too much on his toes, which causes him to
hit the ball high and right. But his iron game, even with his
long irons, is terrific. Like most guys, he is driven by the
hope that deep inside him lives a single digit who is just
waiting for the shankless wedge to be invented. He is the kind
of guy who looks in everybody else's bag and says, "Mind if I
swing this?" He had already mentioned once or twice in the limo
that the best score he'd ever had at Congressional was an 81. He
said it again while we were on the practice range. He'd never
And so we set out to the 1st tee, each of us with his hopes and
100-compression dreams. I have three major goals in life: 1)
achieving world harmony, 2) winning a Nobel Prize and 3) having
the President of the United States call me Pards. So I quickly
suggested that Clinton and I team in a better ball against
Bowles and Mulvoy, who both happened to be wearing khaki pants
and green shirts and looked like the night shift at Denny's.
Despite the fact that we were both 13s, they played Clinton as a
14 and reduced me to a 12, which proves that America does have a
caste system. I put a serious sportswriter snap slice on the
first ball, far out-of-bounds (F.O.B.), but the President said I
could have a 1st-tee mulligan, which, as we all know, is
provided for under the Constitution. He took a mulligan, too,
but never another the rest of the day.
Do you know that feeling when you show up as a single at the
course and you're praying you get thrown in with somebody fun,
not Mr. and Mrs. Crumpacker and their delightful teenage boy,
Cheddar? Well, Clinton is a guy you'd be happy to get thrown in
with. He's the sort of guy who keeps a tee in his mouth as he
walks and, yes, putts with his glove on and leans on your
shoulder as you pencil in the scores, writhing or celebrating
depending on how the match is going. "That's my pards!" he'd say
when I hit a good shot and "I gotcha, Partner," when I didn't.
He was charming and warm and amazingly normal.
He took the team part of the golf to heart and often stood close
to me on shots. One time, I stepped back to take a practice
swing and nearly brained him. He flinched and hopped back
quickly, and the Secret Service guy gave me a little dirty look.
That would be nice. Nuts turning the White House fence into a
steeplechase, maniacs opening up with semiautomatic guns on
Pennsylvania Avenue and people throwing Cessnas at him, and he
doesn't get a bruise, and then I knock him cold with the dreaded
TaylorMade Bubble Shaft driver.
Later, I asked him if he felt vulnerable out in the open like
this. "No. I don't feel unsafe playing golf. I don't feel unsafe
in the White House, either. They keep catching these guys. The
Other than that, it was like playing with the assistant grocer
down the block. He shanked a wedge once and turned to Bowles and
Mulvoy (the single-digit handicappers) and moaned, "Now what'd I
do there?" But he never invoked the Executive Privilege Redo or
even the Presidential Override. He could have. Who was going to
stop him? Lito?
Not that he was above taking a putt now and again when it didn't
matter to the bet, but only after everybody from me to the
caddies to the press aide had practically sprained a larynx
trying to be the first to give it to him. A guy like Mulvoy does
not normally give downhill, sidehill six-footers to an opponent,
but I'm sure he wasn't eager to get audited for the next 20
On about the 3rd hole Clinton was meandering along when I heard
him say to Joe, his caddie, "I had an 81 here one day, but I
wasn't thinking about things that day."
And so I stopped and said, "You thinking about something today?"
And he said, "I've got Bosnia about to blow up on me."
Pards and I won the first nine, one up, and as the day
progressed, I almost forgot about the Secret Service men with
their backs to our drives, watching hole after hole for any
suspicious robins. I also forgot about all the golf carts
following us, some with telephones, some with Secret Service,
some with aides-de-camp, one with the official White House
photographer, one with the White House doctor and one with Lito,
who would materialize magically now and again with refreshments.
On the 11th tee Lito appeared with five colorful and mysterious
looking pills that looked a lot like George Jetson's dinner. The
President looked at them as if they would have to be inserted
somewhere other than orally. "Look at these," he groaned.
"Honestly, now, do you feel any security in knowing that the
leader of your country has to take this many pills?" We all
laughed, except the doctor, who hollered, "Just take them!" He
did. (The doctor said they were vitamins.)
President Taft called the White House "the lonesomest place in
the world," but right then Clinton and his smile seemed a
million miles from it. I could tell because he kept putting his
arm on my shoulder and saying things like, "Some day, huh?" and,
"This is terrific." I asked, "Mr. President, which keeps you
from spending more time on the course, Hillary or the Secret
Service?" And he said, "Oh, they don't mind. Hillary is actually
very supportive of my golf. She thinks it makes me function
better." I asked him how he had been able to take three strokes
off his handicap and still find time to run the world. "It's all
because I get to play with so many good players now," he said.
"The best perks of this office are who you get to play golf
with. I've played with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Raymond
Floyd, Amy Alcott. Amy Alcott had a 33 on the front nine the day
I played with her. Thirty-three!"
At one point I became so comfortable with him that he read a
putt and said, "Right lip," or something like that, and I
answered, "You got it, babe," before I realized I had just given
presidential protocol a free drop. But he said nothing, and
Bowles said nothing. Only the press aide seemed to blanch. Is
this a great country or what?
I knew for sure that it was on about the 15th when Joe watched
Clinton sky-fade another shot and grumbled at him, "Doggone it,
stay off them toes! You ain't no ballet dancer!" There are
countries where Joe and all his descendants would be hung from
their tonsils for such an utterance. In America, Joe's president
merely sighed, "I know. Sorry."
Actually, Mr. President played very well. He had a 41 on the
front and had every chance to break 80 for the first time when
he sank a 25-footer on the par-5 10th for a birdie. But he
three-putted the next two holes and never quite pardoned
himself. "Those two three-putts broke my spirit," he said
forlornly. In the end he shot 82, hitting eight fairways and
nine greens, with 32 putts and two sandies. It was good enough
to beat me by two strokes, which I feel very patriotic about. I
feel it's every citizen's duty to lose to his president by two
Still, despite the fact that we were four shots under our
handicap, we lost the back nine and the match to Mulvoy (77) and
Bowles (76). I reached to pay up, and Bowles said, "We never
actually play for anything. It's just fun."
Then the real world started to close in on us. As we walked,
Bowles handed Clinton a legal-sized gray folder that seemed to
appear out of nowhere and looked like something that got
couriered around a lot in Fail-Safe. I guessed it was a dossier
with political and intelligence material on Bosnia. Bowles
became quite serious, commanding Clinton's attention, while all
at once a few hundred Congressional members wanted to shake his
hand and the Secret Service agent, who had walked next to us all
day and been so friendly, suddenly threw a Dennis Rodman elbow
in my gut to get next to the President. Clinton rode back to the
White House in the limo with the dossier. We rode back in a
We said a quick goodbye 15 minutes later in the Oval Office. He
seemed to have enjoyed the round a helluva lot. "You guys made
my day," he said. I knew he had to make calls in exactly two
minutes to French president Jacques Chirac and British prime
minister John Major about Bosnia, and I could see he didn't want
to have me hanging around, going, "Tell them hi for me!" He was
trying to find a nice way to tell us to get lost. "I'd love to
have you guys stay, but I have to, you know...," and he gestured
toward the big phone on the Resolute desk.
So he put away his smile and he went back to his life, trying to
decide whose lives are worth risking in a spiral staircase of a
war 5,000 miles from home, and I went back to mine, trying to
fix the wife's passenger-side power window. As I walked out of
the White House, I looked back one last time through the thick
bulletproof glass, where I saw him put the phone to his ear and
his forehead in his hand, ready for a long night in the
lonesomest place in the world.
Good luck, Pards.