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A new challenge for President Clinton

Bill Clinton
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NEW YORK – You walk into the building at 55 West 125th St. in Harlem and you’re kindly greeted by an intern who knows your name and knows where to take you.

“You’re here for the foundation, correct?” she asks quietly.

You jump into an elevator, take it to the 14th floor and into a place highly guarded by secret service agents. You walk in and feel like everyone is watching your every move because, well, they are. There is no chitchat; you just mosey into a quaint conference room with 12 chairs and a foggy view of the Manhattan Skyline on this dreary day.

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One side of the room is filled with books about everything you can imagine – autobiographies, sports books, political pieces, inspirational literature. The windowsill is covered with keepsakes and awards from around the world that would be a fulltime job to keep dust free.

It feels like a big deal, because it is. You’re one of a select few journalists invited to spend an hour with former President Bill Clinton to discuss his involvement with the Humana Challenge, formerly the Bob Hope Classic.

The nerves build in anticipation as we’re told the president soon will be in the room. Moments later an area in the wooden wall to the left opens and the 42nd President of the United States walks through with a big grin.

First impression is that he’s taller than you’d expect. He walks around the table to shake hands with each person, making sure he makes direct eye contact to let you know he’s in charge.

“Hello, Mr. President, my name is Jay Coffin and I’m with Golf Channel,” I say with a little crack in my voice.

“Hello Jay, nice to meet you,” he says. “One of my great dreams in life is to do an interview with (David) Feherty.”

And with those words, nerves emptied my body and I realized the afternoon was going to be better than imagined. He was there to talk about topics near and dear to his heart – health and golf, with a sprinkle of politics – and he couldn’t wait to charm the room, like he’s done so many times before.

Clinton will be deeply involved in the Humana Challenge next year as the primary focus of the event will be to get people to live healthier lives, an initiative which the William J. Clinton Foundation fully supports. He’ll deliver a keynote address early in the week at a conference that will be focused on health and if his schedule allows he may tee it up.

If Clinton’s involvement doesn’t help draw a more attractive field, perhaps the format changes may. Each of the 144 players will play with a different amateur each day on a different course for three days. On Sunday, the low 70 players will play the final round at the Palmer Private Course at PGA West. So, instead of five days, it’s four, and instead of four courses there are now three.

“I’m excited about this for a couple of reasons,” said Clinton, sitting alongside PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Humana CEO Mike McCallister. “First of all, I started playing golf years ago. I loved it. I have a lot of memories of the Hope tournament going over a very long period of time.

“We thought this would be an opportunity to focus on health and wellness of children, and that’s a big part of what my foundation does now.”

Said Finchem: “I think it is a different direction for us, because historically our tournaments are organized for charity. We do an awful lot of things to support what they do for charity. But we’ve never really taken an opportunity to reach our fan base with messaging that asks for change or things that would impact behavioral change.”

This event is also special to Clinton because he got an opportunity to know Bob Hope well over the last 25 years of Hope’s life. Clinton recalls first having dinner with Hope in Arkansas in 1979 and he vividly remembers a time when he was in office and Hope, then 95, called to see if Clinton wanted to play golf.

“He called me one day. He said, ‘I know you’re president, but I want to play golf, so just change your schedule,’ ” Clinton quipped.

So the two played nine holes together at Army Navy Country Club.

Clinton, now 65, looks good in his dark brown tailored suit, light blue shirt with black-and-copper tie. He says he’s lost 25 pounds since leaving the White House 10 years ago and is health conscious today more than ever because he’s battled heart disease, had a quadruple bypass and his daughter, Chelsea, who Clinton says is “a total fitness freak,” is constantly on his case.

The allotted time was seemingly over but Clinton continually ignored the burly man standing over his shoulder telling him his next appointment was waiting.

Clinton said that his dream golf foursome would include Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones and Sam Snead, who invited him to play once before his death but they were never able to work out the details. He said he’s never played Augusta National or Pine Valley, but would love to. He’s had multiple chances to play both but declined because, “you know, I have a wife and daughter that don’t like the ‘no women’ policy, so I dealt with that for several years.”

He recalled his lone ace with a 9-iron but didn’t see the ball drop because the hole was behind a hump and he was quick to point out that he has made two eagles on par-4s. He talked about a round of golf in Chicago a few years ago with Luke Donald and Michael Jordan, where MJ challenged Clinton to play the tees longer than he wanted.

After more nudging from his assistant Clinton stood from the table to take a group photo but continued with stories for another 10 minutes. He shared heartfelt stories of tragedies he discovered while in Rwanda, then reverted back to stories about golf, explaining why he played right handed even though he’s a lefty.

Finally, it was time to leave.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “Keep your fingers crossed for us. This might work.”