Bill Clinton loves golf. Also, as some in his native Arkansas might put it, he can talk the hind legs off a donkey.
So it probably should not have been a surprise that his first words to a group of reporters assembled in his Harlem office Thursday, even as he continued to circle the table shaking hands, were these, "One of my great dreams in life is to do an interview with Feherty. He’s one of the funniest men alive." The reference was to David Feherty, the CBS and Golf Channel commentator, not present.
The reason for the gathering was the William J. Clinton Foundation’s new initiative, in partnership with Humana, the health insurer, to co-sponsor the PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge, formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic, in La Quinta, Calif. But the pleasure came from hearing the former president rattle on about golf.
"My best year as a golfer was the first year I got out of the White House. I got down to a 10 handicap. But I’m not close to that now. I just don’t play enough," he said, citing frequent global travel for his various causes.
On a recent trip to Haiti, he ran into George W. Bush. "He was ragging me. He said, ‘I’m down to a 10 now,’" Clinton recalled. If Bush wanted to keep his handicap there, Clinton says he ragged back, "You’re just going to have to resist the temptation to do good. You start traveling and it will wreck you."
Golf skeptics may be amused by Clinton’s attempt to link golf and health, especially those who remember those "Saturday Night Live" skits from the ’90s depicting the president dropping by McDonald’s while jogging to wolf down a few Big Macs. But Clinton these days is a near-vegan.
He said his main violation is the occasional piece of fish, at the urging of his "fitness freak" daughter, Chelsea. In the wake of two heart surgeries, Clinton, 65, has lost 25 pounds and appears fit. "I just decided I wanted to hang around as long as I could," he said.
The notion of linking a golf tournament to an issue, rather than to charity (though some charities will still benefit), represents a new sponsorship model for the PGA Tour. Next year’s Humana Challenge, Jan. 19-22, will be built around a weeklong health-and-wellness conference whose objective is to publicize the benefits of healthy lifestyles and to change behavior.
It is something of an experiment. "No one has found the magic formula yet," acknowledged Mike McCallister, Humana’s chief executive. But given eight years to work with, Humana and Clinton hope they can find ways to nudge the needle.
Clinton loves playing golf with athletes whenever he can. He has played with Greg Norman, Adam Scott, Luke Donald and Michael Jordan, among others. Jordan coaxed him from the white tees to the championship tees by saying, "You’re going to play from the little girls’ tee?" Jordan’s challenge was for Clinton to break 100; he did.
He also played with President Barack Obama last month: He says he shot 92 but did not play well, and said his younger, less experienced playing partner beat him. "He might have won by a shot or two . . . he hits an excellent shot."