Bill Clinton chatted with David Toms during the first round of the Humana Challenge.
Omar Ornelas/AP
By Michael Bamberger
Monday, January 23, 2012

The thing about Bill Clinton, the thing that will give him a chance to make this golf-tournament makeover work, is that he’s not here as a politician. Not at all. The guys in South Carolina, duking it out on CNN, they’re politicians. Barack Obama, of course, is one, too. But Clinton, at 65, has moved on. He’s here in Palm Springs, Calif., as a golfer, and as one of the most popular people in the world. His predecessor, Bob Hope, had the same credentials.

The English-born comedian was the host of the old Bob Hope Desert Classic going back to 1965, and when Bing and Frank and Arnold played, it had real glamour. Winnie Palmer, Arnold’s wife, didn’t even like to come—the whole scene moved a little too fast for her.

But the tournament lost its mojo long before Hope died in 2003, and its last hurrah, really, was in ’95, when Clinton, as a sitting president, came to town to play with Hope, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Hope was still routinely lining doubles back then: “Jerry Ford turned golf into a contact sport.” Hope had a rhythmic swing and perfect timing.

Now the old Hope is the new Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, or at least that’s what it’s called on the website. Clinton is your host. The PGA Tour made this marriage of the health-insurance company and the health-conscious (these days) 42nd president of the United States. This is the first year of an eight-year deal.

Clinton’s not a comedian. He doesn’t do bits. He’s the earnest golfer, like all duffers are, looking for swing tips from his friend Greg Norman, the Australian golfer who would vote Republican, if he had one of those much-coveted Florida votes. Norman is 56 and he played the Hope only once, in ’86. He’s here this week because Clinton asked him to come. That’s the point. This event is post-political.

Clinton was in Haiti last week, on behalf of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. That’s Bush 43. Bush gave up golf as president in 2003 during the Iraq War. In Clinton's eight years in office, he made some serious improvement.

“You’re playing with all these pros and it’s like getting a free lesson every time I played,” Clinton said. On vacation in the Dominican Republic last month, he said he shot a “bona fide 38” for nine holes on a “P.B. Dye” course. When the guy you’re talking to is citing the architect by name—P.B., the son; not Pete, the Hall of Famer—you know you’re talking to a golf head.

As president, Clinton was widely dissed by the rule-book thumpers. But the fact is he was never really one for scorecards. He was like a lot of golfers, drawn chiefly to the thrill of seeing an airborne golf ball following orders, and he was never given enough credit for his abiding love of the game. This week, he has talked about the 1913 U.S. Open, FDR’s follow-through and his hope for Tiger’s second act in the game. His hope for Woods is his hope for every person, anywhere, that he can “take advantage of all that he has.” There’s something generous about Clinton.

He talked about the courses in Hot Springs, the inconsistency of balata golf balls, the “telephone-booth swing” of Doug Sanders. Here’s a man who could play anywhere he wants who has never played Augusta National or Pine Valley but “comes up with an excuse once a year” to play a round at Farm Neck, a public course on Martha’s Vineyard. OK, at one point he confused Rod Funseth and Rod Curl. Give the man a break.

He’s almost skinny now, a different man than he was as president. Maybe 50 years from now his eight years in office will look something like Eisenhower’s eight years, when another golf-mad president presided over a robust economy. Arnold Palmer played many rounds with Ike, but when Clinton and Norman play on Saturday it will only be their second round together.

Last year, Palmer was making a long-delayed swing analysis of recently uncovered JFK golf footage, shot on 16-mm film in the summer of 1963 by the legendary White House photographer Cecil Stoughton. Kennedy had a graceful move, but Palmer said that Clinton had a more athletic swing. When Clinton learned of Palmer’s assessment last week he said, “Really.” Palmer is one of his idols.

There’s a chance Clinton and his people can make the old Hope an elite event again, but a guess here is that they’re more likely to do it with celebrities than with players, and by making the event more intimate, not the sprawling thing it is now. You get the feeling they’ll figure it out.

Clinton has attached his name to the tournament for one reason above all others: it raises money and awareness for a variety of healthy-living causes. Clinton had a quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004. He had stents implanted in 2010. He watches what he eats, closely. He said there are two major differences between the Tour players today and the Tour players he first saw, in person and on TV, in the 1950s: their equipment and their fitness.

You can buy their equipment. You can emulate their fitness. That second part is the message Clinton is trying to get out.

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