How did he wind up here? How did Bill Clinton find himself in the California desert last week, white-haired and trim, eating garden burgers, drinking Diet Cokes from the can, wearing a black Patagonia vest in the early-morning chill, hosting a golf tournament?
The old Bob Hope celebrity pro-am is now Clinton's event. He made one call and got Phil Mickelson to sign up. Another one yielded his old buddy Greg Norman. Morgan Freeman, Alice Cooper and Julius Erving played. Over the week, Goldie Hawn, Annika Sorenstam, Arnold Palmer and Chelsea Clinton popped in and out.
Every PGA Tour event has a cause, and the (deep breath here) Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation is dedicated to lowering your cholesterol and raising your metabolism. Clinton is all in. He's signed on as the Humana host through 2019. The gig doesn't pay him a cent, but it keeps him in the game. He likes that.
Thursday morning, during the event's first round, Clinton was in a hospitality suite, looking at a picture in the local paper: his wife craning her neck and smiling impishly at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, newly named as a "global cultural ambassador" for the State Department. "I've got a picture of him in my gym," Clinton said. Not just for his sky hook, he explained, but for his hook shot and his commitment to racial equality. In that same way, Lance Armstrong, who dropped in last week, has a place in Clinton's sporting pantheon. (Cancer research.) Ditto for Tiger Woods, who did not play last week. (Childhood education.) Clinton is working on Woods for next year. Woods would be smart to say yes and hang close to 42, as Clinton's golf balls are stamped. Who has used a mulligan better?
One thing he wants his tournament to do, Clinton said last week, is to help the players, and the celebrity amateurs who play, get word out of their own charitable works. He was impressed when Heather Crane, the wife of Tour player Ben, told him about her interest in the plight of women working as sex slaves in Thailand and Cambodia. "She's actually been to Thailand and Cambodia," he said.
The golfing oasis of greater Palm Springs, where Ike and Jerry Ford and Spiro Agnew duffed away, will never be confused with Haiti or Beirut, but Clinton was in his element last week, moderating a health-care conference, speaking at a players' party, playing with Norman on Saturday, signing and fiving and posing for his people. At times, Clinton looked and sounded tired.
What a long road he took to Palm Springs from Hot Springs, in Arkansas. Fifty years ago he was a kid hunting for golf balls in the woods, playing alone, carrying a few Wilson woods given to him by a dark-haired gent currying favor with his separated mother. "I still have those clubs," he said. "About 10, 15 years ago, I had them refinished." He brought them to a course to see what they could do. The heads looked tiny, he said, and the ball went nowhere.
It's touching, to think of the passion this gregarious man has for a game rooted in solitude. He caddied once in the Tour event that came through Hot Springs in the late 1950s and early '60s. It was probably in May of 1963, the year he shook hands with JFK, the year he turned 17, the year his hero, a rhythmic swinger who knew Palm Springs in its heyday, was killed in Dallas. Clinton doesn't remember the name of his boss for the week. He remembers his ineptitude, as every young caddie does.
He was sitting in a plush white leather chair and looking at result lists from old Hot Springs Opens. His mind was moving fast now. In '63, Dave Hill won the event and $3,500. Clinton knew that Hill had died last year. "We lost the tournament to Memphis. The purse was $35,000. The Tour wanted it raised to $50,000." He remembers seeing the long-hitting George Bayer missing a putt after somebody walked in his line "and he whistled and smiled, this gigantic man—a great lesson in life."
He could talk golf all day. He watched with keen interest when Woods won a small event in December. "He's getting his mojo back," Clinton said. He talked about the Dunlop Dots he would find as a boy and the Pinnacles he finds today on walks by a course near his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.