Bill is entangled in the rough again

Clinton follows in the best tradition of White House golf-lovers by giving the game away on the course

Last Sunday, as a drizzly dusk enveloped Washington DC, President Clinton suddenly announced that he wanted to play golf. Half an hour later he arrived at the Army and Navy Country Club, and, accompanied by a few secret servicemen, proceeded to thrash around the course for more than two hours, barely seeming to notice that, by the end, he was playing in pitch darkness.

Last Sunday, as a drizzly dusk enveloped Washington DC, President Clinton suddenly announced that he wanted to play golf. Half an hour later he arrived at the Army and Navy Country Club, and, accompanied by a few secret servicemen, proceeded to thrash around the course for more than two hours, barely seeming to notice that, by the end, he was playing in pitch darkness.

Some journalists have seized on this decidedly strange behaviour as evidence that Bill Clinton is losing it - and I don't mean his balls, although he must have lost plenty of those as well. They say that the episode perfectly sums up the twilight of Clinton's presidency - alone, in the dark, with an increasingly slippery grip. They might add that he doesn't mind the occasional encounter with a bit of rough.

Demonstrably, a man's character can be judged by his behaviour on the golf course. When the searingly honest Bobby Jones was commended for calling a penalty against himself, following a slight infringement of the rules noticed by nobody else, he said: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." By contrast, the late Richard Nixon was once spotted in the deep rough, sneakily moving his ball into an advantageous position. In some golfing circles, incidentally, the 37th President of the United States is immortalised in jargon. A "Nixon" is a terrible lie.

Many US presidents have played golf. I once spent a day interviewing Arnold Palmer, and he told me he had played with virtually every President since the golf nut Dwight D Eisenhower.

Jimmy Carter, to the considerable disapproval of most of the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill, did not know a mashie from a niblick. But Palmer, though a diehard Republican, told me that the best presidential swings belonged to two other Democrats, John F Kennedy and Clinton. Clinton, he writes in his autobiography, is "the best ball-striker of any President I have known".

In his book, Palmer also recalls an extraordinary event during Nixon's presidency when he and Bob Hope were summoned to the President's home in San Clemente. When they got there they found Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and other top brass. "It seemed," writes Arnie, "that the President wanted to pick our brains... about how to end the war in Vietnam."

You might want to re-read that sentence, just to digest its significance. In fact, the entire passage is worth quoting. "I do remember the lengthy discussions about various strategic approaches... including the idea of bombing Hanoi back to the Stone Age to try to finally end the miserable, protracted war in South-east Asia. When it finally came my turn to express an opinion, everyone looked at me. 'Well,' I started, a touch reluctantly, 'if the decision were mine to make, I guess I wouldn't pussyfoot around. Let's get this thing over as quickly as possible, for everyone's sake. Why not go for the green?'"

Watergate is meant to have been Nixon's greatest error of judgement, but soliciting the advice of Arnold Palmer on how to end the Vietnam War runs it pretty close. Nevertheless, politics and golf have long been intertwined, on this side of the Atlantic, too. The Parliamentary Golfing Society was formed in 1891, although a proposed match between the two sides of the House of Commons was rejected on the assumption that, as one Tory MP put it, the Gladstonian Whigs would be "as hopelessly out of it as in an Irish debate".

Unsurprisingly, the PGS thrived during the 1980s, with all those shire Tories to draw on. New Labour MPs are said to be less enthusiastic about golf, although I know that Tony Blair has had some instruction from his friend Bill Clinton, and if ideology is anything to go by, must surely be equipped with a natural fade, starting it left and manoeuvring it to the right.

Anyway, with or without Blair, the PGS continues to thrive, and its annual handicap tournament remains a prestigious event with a handsome trophy, on which are engraved the names of such previous winners as Arthur Balfour (1894, 1897 and 1910), Andrew Bonar Law (1907) and the former scratch player William Whitelaw (1976).

The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, nearly got his name on the trophy, too. He was beaten in the 1933 final, having narrowly defeated Britain's first female MP, Nancy Astor, in the semi-final. They played before a huge gallery at Walton Heath, and Lady Astor was two up after nine. Her doughty performance, I am told, earned her increased respect in the House. I wonder what Ann Widdecombe's short game is like?

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