Clinton finds golfing a great escape

August 24, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. -- The golfer, all 6-foot-3, 225 pounds of him, smacked his tee shot with a satisfying plink, but because he came out of his crouch just a tad too soon, his drive began fading to the right about 175 yards down the fairway.

"Whoa, mama!" the golfer muttered. "Stay up!"

And lo and behold, the ball did just that.

After all, this was the leader of the free world talking.

As Bill Clinton unwinds this week on this island off Cape Cod, he zTC becomes the latest in a long line of presidents who have discovered that, for an American president, golf may be the best way to escape it all.

Baseball, because of the long-standing tradition of having the president throw out the first pitch on opening day, is the sport associated with the White House.

If the truth be known, however, in recent times golf, not baseball, is the sport presidents prefer to play.

"It's a way for them to be out in the real world, doing what normal people do, but still have some solitude," said White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Speaking of Mr. Clinton, she said: "He enjoys going one-on-one with himself, enjoys the competition."

Once thought to be a game for wealthy Republicans, golf has become a sport of the middle class. Historians say this is in no small part due to the president who never hid his obsession for the game, the White House's all-time premier linkster: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A terrific athlete in his youth, Ike installed a putting green on the White House lawn, and, according to popular lore, left cleat marks from his golf spikes on the White House floors -- much to the horror of Jackie Kennedy when she moved in.

"Whenever a major crisis broke out, the critics would always say Ike seemed to be on the back nine," said historian William Leuchtenburg.

Ike didn't like to miss his golf. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, the president was scheduled to play at the suburban Burning Tree golf club but it began to rain heavily. Looking out the window of the Oval Office, he told his secretary: "Sometimes I feel so sorry for myself that I could just cry."

Richard M. Nixon played at least once with the Rev. Billy Graham, who insisted in an interview several years ago that no matter how many expletives Mr. Nixon spoke on the infamous Watergate tapes, he never once cursed "nor used the Lord's name in vain" when playing with the famous preacher.

Mr. Nixon's successor, Gerald R. Ford, gained a reputation for occasionally plunking a fan in the gallery with one of his shots. This became a staple of Bob Hope's routines, although, in truth, Mr. Ford was -- and still is -- a fine golfer.

Mr. Ford's love of the game is so complete that he put aside party politics last weekend, and invited Democrat Mr. Clinton to golf with him in Vail, Colo. Even more graciously, the former president allowed the current president to be paired with golfing great Jack Nicklaus.

Observation of Mr. Clinton's style has been revealing: He is a big hitter who doesn't putt to his own satisfaction. He talks a lot on the course, to himself, his companions, even the ball. This talk is generally about golf. He alternates between needling his companions and being vocally supportive. This weekend, he manned the flag himself, generously gave Deputy Attorney General Webb Hubbell a four-foot gimme, and encouraged his luckless friend Vernon Jordan, who seemed to have trouble playing when reporters were present.

But the next day, Mr. Clinton teased Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, saying at one point as Mr. Hackney addressed his ball, "I got a new idea: Try the fairway."

Nothing Mr. Clinton -- or Mr. Ford or Ike -- does on the golf course, however, can hold a candle to the most singular presidential golfer ever. He's living safely in Kennebunkport this summer, but George Bush took to the links with an intensity that was almost comical.

The most notable thing about the way Mr. Bush played was his speed. By never taking practice swings, jumping out of the cart while it was sometimes still moving and rushing every shot, Mr. Bush could -- and did -- complete an 18-hole round of what was dubbed "aerobic golf" in around two hours -- less than half the time taken by Mr. Clinton and the rest of the Western world.

It will be for psychologists and historians to decide if there was some deep meaning in all this.

Already, some are trying to do this with Mr. Clinton.

Noting that most previous golfing presidents have been Republicans, Larry J. Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, speculated that perhaps his golfing is "an attempt to drive home a bipartisan appeal."

Mr. Clinton himself had another explanation.

Asked by a reporter this weekend what he was doing, Mr. Clinton replied simply, "Getting away from everybody."

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