• U.S.

IN GOLF WE TRUST

5 minute read
James Carney/Washington

As usual, Mack McLarty was all business when he arrived at the Oval Office for an appointment and was quickly waved inside by Bill Clinton’s longtime doorkeeper, Nancy Hernreich. But the inner sanctum was empty. “Where’s the President?” asked McLarty, a senior adviser. “What do you mean?” Hernreich responded with alarm. Before the two could panic, McLarty noticed the French door near Clinton’s desk was ajar. Picking up the trail, he went outside. There on the South Lawn, about 30 yds. from the Oval Office, the President of the United States was standing in shirt-sleeves and tie, his hands gripping the shaft of a putter, his eyes fixed on a small white ball at his feet.

The President looked up. “He had this pained look on his face, like, ‘I guess I’ve got to go back inside now,'” McLarty recalls of that late-spring afternoon. “And I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s O.K. I just have a checklist. Let’s do it here.'” And so for 15 minutes, as the Commander in Chief practiced his chip shots and short strokes, McLarty tagged along, running down items of business. “We should do this more often,” McLarty said when he was finished. Replied Clinton hopefully: “Yeah, it kinda works, doesn’t it?”

It does, according to McLarty and most other senior White House staff members. The President has long been a fervent golfer, but not until June, when renovation of Dwight Eisenhower’s old putting green on the South Lawn was completed, could he slip outside and practice his game without leaving the White House. The restored green, designed by renowned course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., is 1,500 sq. ft. of Southshore Creeping Bentgrass, a putter’s paradise. The addition has brightened Clinton’s disposition and broken up his cluttered workday. In the months before he left for a golf-saturated vacation last week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the President could be found outside almost daily, often for just a few minutes, lining up breaking putts-and working through some of the toughest issues he faces. “It’s a think pad,” George Stephanopoulos says of the green. “It’s quiet, there are no phones, and he can use the game to distract part of his mind and let the other part do its work.”

Sometimes the discussions on the putting green are not so quiet. One evening in mid-July, after Serb forces overran the U.N.-protected enclave of Srebrenica and left the West’s Bosnia policy a shambles, Clinton summoned several top aides, including two senior advisers from the National Security Council, to the South Lawn. As they stood by in suits, Clinton, in color-coordinated golf togs, proceeded to “blow off steam on Bosnia,” according to one participant, while he moved around the green with a bag of balls, a putter and a pair of wedges. “It’s hard to justify our diplomacy when our diplomacy isn’t showing much,” he complained loudly. Within days, the White House announced his decision to press for a stiffer NATO response to Serb aggression. Clinton is skilled with a driver and loves nothing more than to put his weight into his swing and blast a ball 250 yds. off the tee. His weakness is his short game and a tendency to “chili dip”-mishit the ball on chip shots so that it dribbles just a few yards. Passing tourists beware: When Clinton and Erskine Bowles, his deputy chief of staff and regular golf partner, take to the South Lawn, they sometimes move 60 yds. back and play the green like a hole on a regular course, minus the long drive. When there’s time, Bowles and Clinton pack up at around 5:30 p.m. and head for one of Washington’s golf courses, where they play “until it’s absolutely dark,” says Bowles.

There’s a purpose to Clinton’s intensity. As he tells just about anyone who will listen, which is pretty much everyone since he is the President, one of his goals in life is to score below 80 on the links before he turns 50. Clinton, who turned 49 last Saturday, wasted no time pursuing his dream in Jackson Hole. On his first day of vacation, he played two rounds. “Oh, no!” he shouted after teeing off for the first round and watching his shot fade left. He ended up posting scores in the mid-80s. Next day, however, he shot a tantalizingly close 81.

Clinton is such a golf enthusiast that he occasionally forgets that others don’t always share his passion. During last month’s Bosnia crisis, Clinton tracked down French President Jacques Chirac in Morocco for an important phone consultation. “Give my highest regards to the King,” Clinton told Chirac, referring to the Moroccan monarch. “Tell him I’m using those golf clubs he gave me, and I’m hittin’ ’em real sweet!” The U.S. President’s small talk left his French counterpart puzzled.

Hillary Clinton is no grieving golf widow. She believes the game relaxes the President, and has strongly supported expanding his playing time. In fact, his standing in the polls has improved since the green was installed. Might there be some link? No way, laughs Stephanopoulos, noting his usual willingness to spin almost any story favorably toward his boss: “That’s too much of a stretch even for me.”

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