Home » Commentary

Bill Clinton's Golf Legacy and Other Thoughts

By John M. Ross,
White House
View large image
Upon leaving the White House, Presidents tend to notice a change in their golf fortunes. (.)

While the debate goes on in these closing days of his administration over the legacy President Bill Clinton will leave behind, there is no question at all about his mark on presidential golf. Clinton-watchers and other golf course spies agree totally that the 42nd president can lay claim to an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most mulligans ever taken by a U.S. President while in office.

Of course, the question is how many mulligans will he get or dare to take once he leaves the White House?

Which takes me back to a memorable visit I had with President Eisenhower at his beloved Gettysburg farm shortly after he left office. The interview focused on how he was enjoying his retirement after unburdening himself of the world's toughest job and, understandably, I zeroed in on his golf game. Were his scores better, I wondered.

"It's a strange thing," he responded with an Ike grin. "My scores are better, but the fellows I used to beat are now beating me."

Take heed, Mr. Clinton.

My dear, departed friend, Fred Corcoran, gets little more than a passing nod in the LPGA's video of its history, made to commemorate its 50th anniversary. And yet it was the genial Boston Irishman who put the ladies' tour in business just as he had the PGA Tour several years earlier.

After he left the PGA, Corcoran took the newly arrived hillbilly, Slammin' Sammy Snead, under his wing and turned him into a sports page celebrity almost overnight. He did the same for Mildred "Babe" Zaharias, who, after her gold medal exploits in the Olympics, had decided to make golf her career. Corcoran had such great success with the Zaharias exhibitions that he was approached by L. B. Icely of the Wilson Sporting Goods Company with the thought of putting a pro tour together for the ladies. And, of course, help Wilson sell more ladies' clubs, etc.

There was one rather large problem, as Corcoran discovered. There had been an attempt to do this before under the Women's Professional Golf Association, which was organized by three women. It had faltered, and when Fred tried to revitalize it with Wilson's support, they balked. They wouldn't let him use the name. When Corcoran relayed the bad news of the impasse to his lawyer, the solution was instantaneous. "No problem," the barrister replied. "If we can't call it the Women's PGA, we'll simply call it the Ladies PGA."

And that's how the LPGA was born in 1950, thanks to Fred Corcoran and a handful of spirited young women players who pitched in to do everything but mow the greens and rake the traps.

While on the subject of the ladies, I think the most underrated of that legion of golf commentators on television is Judy Rankin, who functions mostly on the PGA Tour. Unlike so many of the others, she is low-key and doesn't waste words, and she would rather be found dead than caught using a sports cliché. That's the problem with most of the other women doing sports shows and events; they all struggle to "sound like" male sports commentators.

On the other hand, I'm probably partial. I still recall the ecstasy of pocketing a fistful of London bookmakers' pound notes when Judy won the first Colgate European Open in 1974 at Sunningdale. She had gone off at about 25-1.

Judy had 26 other LPGA victories before she traded in her clubs for a mike.

The PGA Tour apparently is standing firm in its belief that the Presidents Cup matches should move around the world in their biennial scheduling. South Africa already has been booked for 2002, but there's sure to be some negatives fired at that, especially by the top players. Some of them simply don't like to make trips to points distant at the end of the season.

Indeed, there was much support at the October matches for making the Robert Trent Jones Club, which drew high praise even from the losing European team, a permanent site for the event. Some see it as an opportunity to pay a richly deserved tribute to Jones, who died during the past year after changing the face of the golf world with his upgraded and imaginative course design. And, with the beautiful course located on the rim of the nation's capital, it does underscore the name of the event.

And the presidents do turn out for it. This year, not only was President Clinton on hand, but also his predecessor, George Bush the original, as well. At the opening ceremony, Clinton used his notorious golf reputation as a springboard to laughter with "Much against my own instincts, I hereby declare this a no- mulligan zone."

Incidentally, golfers are still buzzing about the camaraderie of the American team in its lopsided win (21-1/2 to 10-1/2) over the Internationals. In post- match interviews, virtually every U. S. player had the same comment "We did it for Kenny as a farewell gift."

And what a gift it was! The biggest blowout ever, and a remarkable rebound from the "Massacre at Melbourne," when the Yanks were trounced by the Internationals in 1998.

Ken Venturi, 64, had announced that this will be his last full-time schedule as CBS' popular golf commentator, and the players wanted him to go out in glory as captain of the American team in a special way. Ken has always been admired by the players, and golf fans too, for his examples of courage and determination during his career. The story of his remarkable triumph in the 1964 U.S. Open has been told over and over again.

I remember the scene well. There was Venturi stretched out on the floor of the locker room, on the brink of complete collapse from heat exhaustion. It was the intermission between the double-round final day (the last one ever held) and a doctor was advising him not to go back on the course, where the temperature hovered around 115 degrees. But he had the lead and nothing would stop him, not even the risk of physical damage.

The next scene was Ken staggering down the last fairway of the Congressional with Joe Day, the USGA head man, at his side, telling him, "Walk with your head up, Ken, you're coming in as the champion." And he did.

But perhaps his biggest victory was in overcoming a speech impediment, a stammer that had plagued him throughout his youth. And that triumph, which he achieved himself simply by talking aloud and painstakingly correcting himself while he walked the golf course by himself and practiced, ultimately led to a 20-year career as one of the game's best TV commentators.

Thanks, fellows, for helping Ken leave as a winner a big winner!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment