Your Cheatin' Heart Clinton's approach to golf should've tipped us off that something was amiss

August 30, 1998

Not to be smug, but when I first heard about Monica Lewinsky, I
thought, Sure, absolutely, no question. Claiming that something
doesn't count because of a technicality--a Biblical
technicality, no less--is precisely the type of wacky
distinction our Mr. Clinton would make. I said to myself, It's
just like with the mulligans.

As have many of us, I've watched the President's golf game for
six years now, and while I've seen his swing improve
admirably--particularly the follow-through, which is now high
and strong--I've noticed that the guy has been resolutely unable
to conquer his seemingly pathological addiction to mulligans.
What does it say about a fellow that he just can't help but
shave strokes, even when the whole world is watching?

I was thinking--and worrying--about the mulligan problem even
before Ms. Lewinsky arrived onstage. Last January the President
appeared on Meet the Press. The program's host, Tim Russert,
steered the interview along the curvy roads of domestic policy
and foreign affairs. Then he started tossing softballs. He asked
questions about Martha's Vineyard, about Chelsea and, finally,
about golf.

"I've gotten better since being President," Mr. Clinton said,
unaware that this is a disquieting thought. "It's mostly because
I've gotten to play with better golfers." I was hoping Russert
would follow up with a question about the President's good
friend Greg Norman--what did happen at the Shark's house the
night Clinton slipped and blew out his knee?--but Russert asked
about the President's handicap instead. "Twelve, 13, something
like that," said Clinton.

With any mulligans? Russert asked. The President's eyes went
steely, as they do. He took one of those pauses, as he does.
"One, now," he finally said. I believed that like I believe pigs
fly.

In trying to figure out the President's handicap for their 1996
book, Presidential Lies: The Illustrated History of White House
Golf, Shepherd Campbell and Peter Landau wrote, "The answer is
clouded by the matter of mulligans, which he uses freely...
Clinton admits to one mulligan per round. But others put the
number higher. It is said, for instance, that with friends in
Little Rock the standard arrangement was one extra tee shot and
two extra fairway shots per nine holes." In other words, Webster
Hubbell golf.

Do I think the President is still shaving six per round? I've
tried to come to a conclusion by following the reporting of CBS
News's Mark Knoller. Knoller says, for instance, that during Mr.
Clinton's 17-day vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1995, the
President spent 55 hours and 36 minutes playing 206 holes of
golf, scoring an average of 85.1, while last summer on Martha's
Vineyard he spent 48 hours, 31 minutes, playing 180 holes in an
average of 82.7 strokes. From Knoller's stats I learned this
about the presidential game: Mr. Clinton's foursome proceeds at
a pace of five hours per round, a figure that would horrify his
predecessor, George Bush.

There are some things about Clinton's game, though, that not
even Knoller knows. The first time the President reported
breaking 80, Knoller told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that there was "no
one there to see it" because "the press doesn't have access to
most of the holes he plays." Knoller admitted that "a lot of
times I have to take him at his word" and said rather sadly that
Clinton's alleged 79 last summer at Martha's Vineyard "was
immediately cast into doubt because we saw him take three tee
shots on the 1st hole."

So, yes, there is something serious to be said about Mr.
Clinton's mulligans--something about duplicity, chronic
self-delusion, an incapacity for truth-telling. Also, as
directly relates to the Lewinsky affair, there's something
serious to be said about calling an act something other than
what it truly is, so that it vanishes and doesn't count.

Mr. President, a golf shot is not a mulligan, it's a golf shot.
Count it. Count 'em all. And an assignation with a young woman
wherein things transpire that might upset the wife, count that
too.

Robert Sullivan, a 20 handicapper, is an assistant managing
editor at LIFE magazine.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: VICTOR JUHASZ [Drawing of Bill Clinton discreetly kicking golf ball into hole with foot]

What does it say about a fellow that he just can't help but
shave strokes?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)