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A former president's handicap


NEW YORK - It is a delicate diplomatic mission, with emissaries making back-channel inquiries to avoid embarrassment.

The initiative is not about Mideast peace, repairing relations with China or forging a new arms control agreement with Russia's prime minister.

The goal is getting Bill Clinton into a golf club.

The effort began while the former president occupied the Oval Office, after he and now-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had purchased a home in Westchester County - a mecca of private courses.

Months later, it is clear that Bill Clinton has a handicap.

Some prestigious clubs, such as Winged Foot Golf Club (site of four U.S. Open championships) and the Westchester Country Club, signaled there would be no preferential treatment: He would have to apply like everyone else. The waiting list at Winged Foot is more than a decade.

Ditto the Mount Kisco Country Club. And at the Whippoorwill Club, closer to the Clintons' home in Chappaqua, N.Y., the reception was equally chilly: No jumping the line.

The issues include the mulligans - extra drives on the course that don't count against a player's score - and the problem of post-presidential protection.

"On the one hand, it is a compliment to a club that the former president would be interested in joining," says Peter Landau, historian of St. Andrew's Golf Club in Westchester County and co-author of "Presidential Lies: The Presidential History of White House Golf."

"There are a lot of nightmares connected with having a president. If they had dogs sniffing in the ball washers, it would not be a particularly pleasant experience," he said.

Added Chris Hodenfield, editor in chief of Golf & Travel magazine: "People who belong to these clubs don't like to be told: 'The club is closed off because the president is playing here today.' Some presidential interloper comes by with his squadron of walkie-talkies. They just don't like it."

Members' concerns

George Peper, editor in chief of Golf magazine, recalled a round of golf he played with then-Vice President Dan Quayle.

"There were 12 Secret Service people with him," Peper says. "I finally said: 'One of those guys is going to play through.'

"I think clubs are concerned not only with the member, but the guests he may bring and the commotion. Clinton doesn't go anywhere by himself."

Club admissions committees consider many factors when someone - even a former president - applies for membership.

The character of the applicant as well as his or her immediate family members is often weighed, as are the depth of family roots in the community.

It helps to have a close, enduring relationship with several current club members.

Being viewed as congenial - and as someone who would use the club regularly - are definite pluses.

"Some people join clubs just as trophies. Most clubs don't like that," says one member of an exclusive Westchester golf club who has served on the admissions committee. "They want to know you are invested in the club, dine there and play golf with the fellow members. That it's part of your life, not that you are a stranger who parachutes in."[Members] will not turn the place upside down for an ex-president. There is too much nuisance. It's the same reason cooperative apartment houses in the city reject celebrities."

Then there is the issue of the former president's golfing habits.

"When Bill went out to play, they tended to be practice rounds," Hodenfield notes. "He took mulligans. Some people got a little stiff in the neck about that. They would say, 'Is he a golf guy?'

"Clinton fatigue figures in as well. When somebody mentions they belong to a club, they want someone to say an important event happened there, like a U.S. Amateur [Championship]. ... It gets down to prestige. Will he lend prestige to our club?"

The boards of directors at some clubs are aware that discussion of his application could cause splits in the membership.

'Character issue is part of it'

But in the case of the former president, it's more than the fact that lots of Republicans are on the links. "I am sure the character issue is part of it," Peper says.

According to "Presidential Lies," William McKinley - who entered the White House in 1897 - was the first chief executive to play golf. Woodrow Wilson often carried his own bag, and he played the course with his wife. They got up early so he could return to the Oval Office by midmorning.

Richard M. Nixon at one point in his career sported a 12 handicap. Dwight D. Eisenhower liked to end the day by practicing his irons on the south lawn of the White House.

John F. Kennedy, who had an athletic, flowing swing, hid the fact that he was a golfer when he sought the Democratic nomination. He recoiled in horror when he almost scored a hole in one. JFK thought voters would be tired of another golfer in the White House.

Of all the presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson may have been the king of the mulligans. He could drop as many as eight balls after a single shot and hit them until he was satisfied.

In a November interview with Golf Digest, Clinton sought to mute criticism of his mulligans.

"My mulligans are way overrated," he said.

He explained that he lets everyone have an extra shot from the first tee. If someone hits a ball terribly during the round, he will allow another mulligan - and he will give the other players one as well.

But he said one mulligan every nine holes is his limit.

The storm clouds should not come as a surprise. While he was in the White House, Clinton asked a top Westchester County Democratic official to help him get a tee time the next day at any one of a number of prestigious courses.

The effort failed. Clinton went to the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, where he watched the U.S. Tennis Open instead.

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