To get to the office of the chief of staff of the President of the United States, one must pass through the northwest gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and then enter the West Wing of the White House. From there a first-floor hallway snakes past the Roosevelt Room as well as the offices of the Vice President and the director of the National Security Council. Past ever more grandiose wall hangings and stoic Secret Service agents is the modest yet highly coveted real estate occupied by Erskine Bowles, the gaunt, slightly rumpled chief of staff.
On a recent May afternoon, fresh from a meeting in the Oval Office, in the midst of a 15-hour day that touches on, among other things, the budget debate, drug smuggling from Mexico and chemical weapons bans, Bowles can be found slumped in a chair in the corner of his office, head resting wearily in his right hand, reflecting on an issue of personal importance. "I've only played golf once since Oct. 15," he says glumly. "I miss it a lot, and I think about it all the time. A lot of people in D.C. like to talk golf. I have to go on memory."
Bowles is a onetime seven handicapper who proudly displays in his office a picture of himself and some buddies standing on the sacred earth of Ireland's Royal County Down. He's one of the most powerful men inside the Beltway, and that he would take time out from plotting the fate of the free world to whine about his golf hints at how important the game is in the culture of the nation's capital. While Bowles's boss, First Golfer Bill Clinton, is one of the most visible duffers ever to occupy the White House, a strong golf jones is not limited to the executive branch. Says Representative Mike Oxley (R., Ohio), one of the House's noted golf nuts, "A traditional salutation on the Hill is, 'So how you hittin' 'em?' "
This nexus between golf and politics was spotlighted during the Kemper Open at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel in the D.C. suburb of Potomac, Md., and will be again next week during the 97th U.S. Open, at Congressional Country Club, a couple of miles down the road in Bethesda. "The Open's going to be a huge political event," says Representative Tom DeLay (R., Texas), the House majority whip. "The tickets are floating around here like crazy." DeLay, a 10 handicapper, has already lined up a practice round with fellow Texan Mark Brooks for the Tuesday of Open week, a nice bit of face time for a guy who often mixes golf with politics.
In a town built on dealmaking, "golf is an indispensable part of the process," says DeLay, whose office in the Capitol is crammed with golf mementos, including a ball with Clinton's picture over the inscription SLICK WILLIE: GOOD LIE GUARANTEED. "This business is a lot like any other business—it's who you know, who you can trust, who you can't trust. It's a whole process of building relationships, and there's no better way to do that than golf. You know that if a person cheats at golf, he'll cheat you, so it's a wonderful way of understanding each other. The person in this building [the Capitol] who knows the most people and has created the most relationships is probably the most respected. Absolutely you're at a disadvantage if you don't play golf."
Adds David Crone, a lobbyist for the telecommunications giant TCI and a member at Caves Valley Golf Club, the axis around which the Baltimore business community spins, "No one in Washington ever plays golf just for fun."
So what exactly do they play for? "Two-dollar Nassaus, one-dollar trash," says Senator Don Nickles (R., Okla.), the majority whip and by consensus the best stick in the Senate.
"A dollar a hole," says DeLay.
"Two bucks a side, or something equally low rent," says Oxley, who carries a 12 handicap and has in his office in the Rayburn Building a picture of himself watching George Bush putt aboard Air Force II, a photo that the then vice president inscribed THANKS FOR THE PUTTING LESSON! "When you're dealing with billions of dollars in Congress, you want to lower the stakes on the course."
Of course, sometimes billions of dollars of congressional money is at stake on the course. Few, if any, politicians belong to the pricey golf clubs that surround D.C. (though many have memberships at such places in their hometowns). So to play golf when they're in Washington, they usually tee it up as guests of private individuals or corporations. The politicos get access to the best courses, and all manner of interest groups get access to the politicos. Says DeLay, "I play wherever anyone will take me."