LA QUINTA, Calif. – Eighteen years ago, in the middle of his first term as president, Bill Clinton came here, to greater Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley – famously a safe haven for rich Republican golfers, right? – and mixed it up with two former Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and Jerry Ford. Bob Hope filled out the foursome at the tournament named for him.
This week Clinton was back, the host of what is now the Humana Challenge, vowing next year to bring back another golfer, Barack Obama.
The Coachella Valley: it's not just for rich Republican golfers anymore. It welcomes rich Democratic golfers, too.
(Related Photos: Golfers at the White House)
But Clinton's involvement with the tournament goes way beyond golf, and the superficial image of the Valley we get from watching the tournament on TV every year couldn't be more misleading. Clinton was drawn to politics by the plight of the needy, and he was drawn to a fitness makeover by his own 2004 angina attack and subsequent heart bypass surgery.
The Humana Challenge is a golf party, of course. Every stop on the PGA Tour is a golf party. But this particular event is cut from Clinton his own self. It makes major nods toward healthy living and the plight of the disenfranchised.
According to government data, more than one-third of the 340,000 people who live in the Coachella Valley live below the poverty line. Last year, in Clinton's first year as tournament host, the Humana donated more than $2 million to the local Eisenhower Medical Center and (this next part comes from a Tour website) "mentoring programs for children, social services, and food and safe shelter for the less fortunate."
I know, I know: you come to golf to get away from the problems of the world. Clinton himself, of course, is not thinking about the plight of some poor kid with a lousy school and a single, alcoholic mother when he wheels back, right elbow flying, and tries to uncork a high hot one. But it's also important to understand the impulse that got him here in the first place.
(Related Photos: President Obama Playing Golf)
At last year's Humana, Clinton was everywhere, playing in the pro-am, running a health conference, attending cocktail parties, chatting up players and fans, giving interviews, selling the tournament. This year it was less of the same and an early departure to Washington for the second inauguration for the First Duffer.
Obama will love it, driving by the mansions on Frank Sinatra Drive and the famous recovery center named for Betty Ford and the courses frequented by Spiro Agnew. East meets West.
This year the tournament, a four-day event where the pros are accompanied by amateurs for three days, had Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Davis Love and also Ozzie Smith, Michael Bolton and Carson Daly. Clinton knows what he's up against, competing against the tournament in Abu Dhabi, where the players collect funny money the moment their Niked feet hit the oil-rich dirt.
Every tournament would like to have Tiger and Rory and Dustin in the field, and Cameron Diaz and Bill Murray and Mark Wahlberg in the pro-am. Could the Humana get there? Yes, it could. The Tour's Charlotte stop, the Wells Fargo Championship, showed how inspired leadership can turn an event around.
What the Humana has is Clinton, and what Clinton has is what he's always had, an uncanny ability to relate to people, regardless of their background. When a Tour official or a tournament official drones on about all the good a golf event does for charity, the voice in your head suddenly belongs to Charlie Brown's teacher. Clinton engages you in the lingua franca of American life: sport.
When he met the light welterweight Tim Bradley on a school tour the other day, Clinton knew a lot about him, in part because he has been following the career of Manny Pacquiao. You can talk college football with Clinton all day long. Asked about the proposed ban on anchored putting, Clinton gave a 90-second answer that made reference to Sam Snead and croquet putting, the youth movement with the belly putter and his own experience with the yips, though he never used that word, because he knows that no golfer ever likes to hear that word said out loud. It's not known for sure, but it could be an airborne disease.
"For those that love [anchored putting] and do it, I'm sorry, but I can't weigh in, because I don't know enough to have an informed opinion," Clinton said.
Such inspired awareness! It is why the man has a chance of drawing Ernie Els and Adam Scott and Keegan Bradley to next year's Humana, to say nothing of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama.
(Related Photos: Phil At The Humana Challenge)
"We played 13 holes at Andrews Air Force Base the other day, before he had to leave as a result of being re-elected and getting ready for the inauguration," Clinton said at a Humana press conference the other day. "And he had the lowest score by far he had every shot at Andrews. He was five shots ahead of me after nine holes. But I'm older, I start slow and pick up.
"So I picked up four of those strokes in the first three holes of the back nine and after, so I'm only one down, and he leaves at 13. He says, 'Got to go.' I said, 'Hey, you're talking to somebody that's had this job and made that excuse.'"
Everybody laughed, and then Clinton did what Clinton does: he segued to the charitable elements of the tournament to which he is now devoting so much time. The man's 66. He's never going to shoot his age. But he's still got game.