NEW YORK As former President Bill Clinton concluded a small press conference in his Harlem headquarters Thursday afternoon, a muscular man in a gray pinstripe suit hovered behind him, anxiously trying to wrap things up and shuttle the president to his next appointment. Clinton had just spent 50 minutes chatting with a small group of golf writers about his foundation's new partnership with the Humana Challenge, the La Quinta, Calif.-based PGA Tour event formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic. But he looked and sounded as if he had no place else to be. He wanted to talk golf.
"You know who I like playing with?" Clinton said as he leaned back in a leather swivel chair across from a window that offered stunning views all the way down Manhattan. "Sean Fister, who won the long driving championship. I mean, it's amazing playing with a guy that every third time he hit it, it's 400 yards. I like it."
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Clinton finally rose, bade a few farewells and ... started yapping again. With his handlers looking agitated, the president mused about the great joy he derives from finding golf balls at the Whippoorwill Club near his home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and about his balky knee, the result of a tumble he took down Greg Norman's stoop back in 1997.
"You remember that, don't you?" Clinton said.
The president can't help himself. He's a natural schmoozer, a storyteller, and now, a PGA Tour ambassador. Clinton's interest in the Humana Challenge began with its title sponsor, a health-benefits provider that plans to imbue the tournament with a health-centric vibe. No other Tour event has such an agenda and that appealed to Clinton because one of the missions of his 10-year-old foundation is to improve global health. The partnership should be symbiotic: the event will help bring attention to Clinton's foundation and in turn Clinton should help reinvigorate what in Hope's heyday was one of the Tour's most popular stops.
"I think everyone knew there had to be some sort of reorganization in order to save [the tournament]," Clinton said. "We thought this would be an opportunity to focus on the health and wellness of children, and that's a big part of what my foundation does now."
A first-of-its-kind national summit focused on health and well-being will be conducted on the Tuesday of tournament week, including a keynote address from Clinton.
"I think it is a different direction for us, because historically our tournaments are organized for charity," said PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who was seated next to Clinton and who has been friendly with him for some 35 years. "But we've never really taken an opportunity to reach our fan base with messaging that asks for change or things that would impact behavioral change."
It remains to be seen whether that will mean replacing hot dogs and beer at the concession stands with tofu and wheatgrass shakes, but Humana CEO Mike McCallister stressed that the tournament will provide fans with all kinds of health education, including a station where they can have their biometrics measured. (Humana has already started providing fans at other Tour stops with pedometers to monitor their mileage.)
"It's a wonderful opportunity with a great platform, in an environment where I think people can really connect the dots relative to getting up, getting out, moving, and taking charge of their health," McCallister said.
And it's an agenda, Clinton said, that all Americans can rally around.
"We're having all these fights down in Washington today about the budget," Clinton said. "And the reason is that if you're a conservative, some of the choices that have to be made are unpalatable, and if you're a liberal, some of the choices you have to make are unpalatable. The one free choice we have is to become healthier."
Clinton has had his own health issues in recent years, including a pair of heart surgeries since 2004. He said Thursday that he feels "great" and that he's 25 pounds lighter than his peak weight. He adheres mostly to a vegan diet these days, even if his daughter, Chelsea, doesn't entirely approve.
"What Chelsea's always telling me -- she's a total fitness freak, my daughter is -- is better you eat fish every now and then than get too low on protein," Clinton said.
The president's not playing as much golf as he once did. He said his handicap was as low as 10 his first year out of office but it has crept back up.
"Haiti just about killed my game," he said of the time he spent there on relief missions after the 2010 earthquake. On one of those visits he ran into George W. Bush and his father. The younger Bush gloated to Clinton that he had whittled his handicap down to a 10 since leaving office.
"I told him, 'You're just going to have to resist the temptation to do good,'" Clinton said, laughing. "I said, 'You start traveling and it will wreck you because we're the same age.'"
When asked whether he agreed with Fred Couples' captain's picks for next month's Presidents Cup (Couples chose Tiger Woods and Bill Haas), Clinton bobbed and weaved as if he were under fire at a White House news conference.
"When I was president, I got second-guessed all the time," he said. "I don't think I should second-guess the captain's picks. We'll just have to wait and see.
"The real problem he's got is he's got so much young talent. And the problem you've got in all these things is do you want to take somebody that's young and fearless or do you want to take somebody who has been around the track and thinks about it."
Clinton has been around the track, many of them, in fact. He played with Adam Scott when Scott was at UNLV. He witnessed Bryce Molder shoot 59 on a course in Arkansas. He played with Michael Jordon at Conway Farms in Chicago, only to be razzed by MJ for wanting to play "the little girls' tees." Just a couple days ago, Clinton teed it up with two-time major winner Padraig Harrington. "God, he looks like he could play professional football," Clinton marveled.
It's those kind of contacts that should help Clinton draw a strong field of both professionals and amateurs to the California desert in January, and the president hinted that he won't be afraid to dip into his Rolodex to make that happen.
"I'll do whatever Tim says will help," Clinton said.