Clinton still talks a good game

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- As Bill Clinton finished his first nine holes around 1:30 p.m. local time on the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West, 35 mph winds blew golf balls on greens and toppled trees, suspending the third round until Sunday morning. Perhaps the golfing gods had mercy on the 42nd U.S. president, who will not have to go back out when the pros resume play at 7:30 a.m.

Dressed in all black, the 65-year-old Clinton said that his white and red adidas golf shoes with the American flag on the heels were the best part of his game. His handicap had been as low as a 10 after he left office in 2001, but for the past three years he had been too busy to play because of his efforts to rebuild earthquake-stricken Haiti.

In 1995, when he was in the middle of his first term, he played in the Humana Challenge with former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush to crowds that lined every fairway. Yet more than a decade after leaving office, he hasn't lost his ability to captivate audiences with his Southern charm and talent for connecting personally with everyone he meets.

For those nearly three hours that it took his group to play nine holes, he held us all captive with his every swing. His playing partners, Greg Norman, Scott McCarron and Humana CEO Mike McAllister, must have grown tired of the former president's penchant for slowing the proceedings by stopping to talk to every fan who called his name. At times, Clinton couldn't help himself -- asking an aide to separate him from adoring fans.

Shortly before their 10:20 a.m. tee time, Norman had remarked to a friend that one year he had played a round for 6 hours and 30 minutes at Poppy Hills during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The 56-year-old two-time major champion had never been on a course longer and wasn't trying to better that feat on Saturday.

As they set out on the water-filled Palmer course, Clinton hit one decent shot for every four that he shanked, duffed or double hit. Norman, who could still be a top-50 player in the world if he played more, encouraged Clinton throughout the round to get more rotation in his golf swing.

Imagine yourself as a player with such an obsession to keep your head down that you don't allow your body to turn back and through on the golf swing. Well, that's Clinton's stiff, mechanical swing.

Armed with an overbearing caddie on whom he leaned for everything as if he were one of his former White House aides, Clinton worked hard to take every shot seriously. Even as his shanks nearly took off the heads of a few fans on a couple of occasions, he never lost his composure or desire to hit the next shot.

Playing over at the La Quinta Country Club, Mark Wilson was taking the outright lead of the tournament. Through 15 holes on Saturday, he was 5 under for the day and 21 under for the tournament, 3 shots better than Ben Crane and 4 better than Zach Johnson.

"I played eight holes with basically no wind, and then I was on number 18 tee when it started blowing," said Wilson, who started his round on the 10th hole.
"The par-3 third hole was probably the wildest. I had no idea what club to hit and I was between 4-iron, 3-iron, 2-iron, all different clubs, and I hit a good shot up around the green. It went 30 yards over just because the wind took it. I went from the mentality of making birdies to just making solid pars when I could."

Over at the Nicklaus course, the wind was about the only thing that could slow down Robert Garrigus, who had nine birdies through 13 holes before play was stopped. Garrigus is 5 shots back of Wilson at 16 under par.

It's too early to say if all 72 holes will be completed by Sunday evening, with several groups still with nine or more holes to play of their third rounds. Though the weather forecast is good, the tour isn't ruling out a Monday finish.

When play for the day was finally called at 2:50 p.m. PT, Clinton signed more autographs and thanked fans for coming out before leaving PGA West. On Friday, he said that he was committed to coming back to the tournament every year, and that he wanted to get the players more involved in the Health Matters conference that precedes the event.

Hopefully, the world's problems can allow him freedom to work on his game so he'll hit better shots in next year's tournament and wow us with not just his charm, but also the substance of his golf.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.