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Sunday 13 July 2003

Put Clinton off if he dares cheat in Ireland

'WHAT???????!!!!!!!" was the enquiry from an American friend, emailing me last Monday a news item about Bertie Ahern signing up to channel Ireland's aid budget for Mozambique through the William J Clinton Foundation. Now my friend is a Republican who loathes Bill Clinton with all her heart and distrusts him with every atom of her being. From her perspective - which would be shared by tens of millions of people in the US - the Irish Taoiseach has entrusted a substantial sum of money to an institution honouring a discredited politician whose two terms of office were marked by scandal, near-impeachment and an almost complete failure to deliver on his promises at home or abroad. 

I explained that most Irish were deeply flattered at the work, effort and time Clinton had put into the peace process, but she was having none of it. "That doesn't make up for all his sins," she said. "He's white trash, with neither principles nor character. Ireland's just fallen for his sleazy charm." 

She's right, really. Though I can't stick the fella myself, I'd be afraid to meet him in case I succumbed. Clinton appeals to that part of the Irish psyche that loves a rogue - that part that smiled at Charlie Haughey's wayward ways. He's an American version of Flurrie Knox - the bad boy with the ready excuse and the merry smile. 

Where is the only statue to Bill Clinton in the big wide world?  Ballybunnion, that's where. And appropriately, it's a statue of Clinton playing golf - a sport in which his loveable roguery reaches breathtaking heights (or depths, as my friend would see it). 'President Mulligan' is the nickname he's earned for his prowess in cheating. 

A 'Mulligan', for you non-golfers, describes what some golfers (particularly Americans) do if they've hit a particularly bad shot. Although it's contrary to the rules, playmates will sometimes in such circumstances allow one another to ignore the first and hit another drive. The convention is to take a Mulligan only on the first hole, though, very occasionally, one might be taken later on in the round. Bill Clinton, however, takes so many that he became widely known in the golf world as 'President Mulligan'. 

Clinton believes himself to be the only president whose golf game has improved while he was in office and puts it down to having played with many great golfers who gave him good advice. Well, that isn't the explanation given by Don Van Natta Jnr, the New York Times reporter who chronicles his round with Clinton in his recent book First Off the Tee. Helped by a researcher who kept a keen eye on Clinton throughout, Van Natta found that Clinton hit 200 swings but recorded only 82. Forget about Mulligans, says Van Natta, Clinton does Billigans, which he got away with precisely because he was president. 

Nor, recorded Van Natta, does Clinton stop there. He deliberately undermines the competition by criticising their swings, illegally improves the lie of his ball and brilliantly plays the putting dodge. If your ball lands two inches from the hole, Bill says "I'll give you that." So then, as a quid pro quo, he picks up his, which is three feet away. After Van Natta's round, he found Clinton's putter among his own clubs: "It's kind of symbolic that his putter was in my bag," said Van Natta, "because he didn't use it much that day." 

Van Natta divides American golfing presidents into foursomes, based on skill and love of the game. Clinton heads the foursome "Hail to the Cheats" - the others are Thomas Harding, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Mind you, as world leaders go, Clinton isn't as bad as Kim Jung-il of North Korea, whose regular rounds in the low fifties are authenticated by playing partners who prefer not to end their days in jail. Still, he is notoriously, breathtakingly and shamelessly, a golfing cheat who is let get away with it on courses all around the world. 

Clinton will shortly be playing regularly in County Kildare, where he's just spent €1.2m on a K Club apartment. My advice to neighbours such as Dermot Desmond, JP McManus, John Magnier and Michael Smurfit is either to have the courage to insist he plays honestly, or to refuse to play him for money. 

"Golf is like life in a lot of ways," Clinton said once. "The most important competition is the one against yourself." Now there's a man you really have to worry about.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards