Thanks for the memories, President Clinton

LA QUINTA, Calif. – As Bubbas go in the game of golf, Bill Clinton can’t compare to Gerry “Bubba” Watson. The 42nd president of the United States can’t hit a driver from one county to the next and can’t shape the ball in wondrous fashion. But there are things Bill Clinton can do that the other Bubba can’t. He can bring electricity to a golf tournament, and this one, now named the Humana Challenge, has sorely needed it since Bob Hope, who made it such a popular PGA Tour stop in its heyday, passed away in 2003.

Clinton, despite having his round cut short on the 10th fairway on the Palmer Course at PGA West when heavy winds suspended play on Saturday, is off to a good start in creating his own memories. Mr. Hope would definitely approve.

Former President Bill Clinton and pro-am partner Greg Norman share a moment during Saturday's round.
(AP Images)

It was not one-liners which appealed to the gallery circling every tee and green. That was Hope’s special gift to golf fans, and the world. Clinton, whose foundation is a partner with Humana in sponsoring the tournament, has a different gift. He’s known for it. He presses the flesh, as if he were still on the campaign trail, making every single person he greets feel special.

Walking down the fairway at No. 7, Clinton hears a fan, probably in his early 30s, ask for a photo-op.

“Mr. President,” the man said, “you mean everything to me.”

Clinton could have easily kept going and nobody would have called him on it. He was playing in a pro-am golf tournament, for goodness sake. You are supposed to hit it and keep walking. You can’t stop for everyone. But he did stop. He let the fan have his moment, probably one he’ll cherish forever. He stopped a lot. He let a lot of fans have their moment.

They thanked him for coming to the Palm Springs area, and he told them he was honored to be here. After putting out at No. 7, he went over to a group that was holding pro-Clinton banners. If he didn’t have to make it to the next tee, he might still be there.

Golf could use more of these exchanges, if not with Clinton – he is a busy man – then with other celebrities. It wasn’t too long ago when some of the biggest names in showbiz, like Glen Campbell, Jackie Gleason, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and of course, Hope, lent their time and support to tour events. They created a buzz you don’t get from the corporate sponsors who run the show these days. They are missed.

As for Clinton’s golf game, let’s give the man a break. Between his work the last two years to aid earthquake-ravaged Haiti, his foundation, and the other responsibilities which fall upon a former leader of the free world, he doesn’t have much time to chase a little white ball.

“The best year I ever had on the golf course was 2001, the year I left the White House,” Clinton had told reporters the day before. “I got down to a 10. … I have no idea what my handicap is now, but it’s high.”

[ Photos: Humana Challenge action ]

Yet, whatever his handicap, he still has standards. When a putt at No. 6 came up short, he responded in understandable frustration, “you baby,” and when his second shot from the rough at No. 8 squirted to the right, he blurted out, “No … I should’ve hit the rescue.”

Still, there were glimpses along the way that showed he has played the game: the chip shot at No. 5 which came to a rest a few feet from the cup, a solid drive at No. 6, an impressive shot from a difficult stance at No. 7. The way he was going, he likely would have come up with a few more gems on the back if Mother Nature had not intervened.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said his pro partner and friend, Greg Norman, who hadn’t played with Clinton for several years.

“I thought his rotation was good considering he hasn’t played much. … I told him many times he was a little confused on his alignment. Outside of that, it was good.”

Clinton will be back next year. His foundation has made a real commitment here. He will be his usual charming self with the crowds, and they will love him for it.

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Michael Arkush is an editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jan 22, 2012