Correction appended May 21 at 10:10pm
President Obama caught a lot of flack earlier this week for golfing Saturday with a lobbyist, a Dallas lawyer and the chairman of a Texas utility who also sits on the board of Halliburton.
The game drew attention because it was unusual in two ways. First, Obama decided not to play on his favored golf courses—Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Belvoir—but at the swanky, invitation-only Robert Trent Jones Golf Club on the shores of Lake Manassas in Gainesville, Virginia. Second, he swapped out his usual coterie of junior aides for a foresome that looked like a political schmooze fest: his former Trade Representative Ron Kirk who now works at the law firm Gibson Dunn, CenterPoint Chairman and Halliburton board member Milton Carroll and lobbyist Joe O’Neill of Public Strategies Washington.
The combination got the attention of the press."I think he played a game of golf," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, when asked about the round. The White House declined to provide any further information about the outing, or what was discussed.
But interviews with people close to the men who played Saturday reveal some parts of the back story behind the power pairings. It all begins with Ron Kirk, who before leaving public life was one of the President's favorite golf partners. (The Saturday outing was his 21st round of golf with the President.) From Kirk, the foursome grew with Texas connections. He knows O’Neill, a lobbyist for companies like Bain Capital, Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Edison Electric Institute, from when they both worked for the late Texas Senator Lloyd Benson. “Ron Kirk is about the most fun person to be around on the planet. Joe is right up there on the fun scale,” says Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush who knows both men through Texas politics. “Sounds to me like just some really fun people to play golf with.”
Kirk, a former Texas secretary of state and mayor of Dallas, also knows Carroll from Texas circles going back to the 1980s. But Carroll had a second ticket onto the first tee: Obama knows Carroll from Chicago, where Carroll has served as a director of the Healthcare Service Corporation since 1998 and as its chairman since 2002. Michelle Obama has connections with the University of Chicago’s medical school, and many longtime Obama family friends hail from the medical and healthcare worlds.
Saturday was the first time O’Neill and Carroll had met, according to two friends of Carroll. “He was asking me about Joe after that game and said he was a great golfer,” says Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, who has known Carroll since high school.
By all accounts, Carroll is an excellent golfer and one not prone to tone down his game to boost the ego of a weaker player, even if that player is the President of the United States. “The President is a good golfer; he enjoys the game and the competition,” Carroll said in a statement to TIME. Carroll is also known for his discretion. “I can recall a reporter years ago wondering how he managed to be so close to congressmen and powerful people,” Ellis says. “He was dubbed Milton none-of-your-business Carroll. He was such a private guy.”
So, did the men get into Carroll’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline or O’Neill’s lobbying agenda? None of the four are talking.
Most of Obama’s sporting outings involve a lot of trash talking and friendly competition, but talk can turn serious. The last time Carroll played with the President in Florida last year, Obama was grappling with a domestic issue. “Milton commented on how brilliant [the President] was on all side of the issue,” says Ben Hall, a Houston attorney who has know Carroll for more than 20 years. “He said he really had an understanding of the implications of all sides.”
For more on Obama's golf partners, see this interactive graphic below, which is current as of the beginning of 2014.
CORRECTION: The story originally misstated the cities where Kirk and O'Neill work. Kirk works in Dallas, and O'Neill has not recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Texas. Also the story has been changed to reflect the proper spelling of Bristol-Myers Squibb.