When the future No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives was seven years old, his father, Enos Clyburn, a Presbyterian minister, gave him a wooden golf club and rubber golf ball for Christmas - even though the elder Clyburn had never played the game. At 9, Clyburn worked nine holes as a caddie - then the traditional route to golf for African-Americans - before quitting the job for good because a player treated his condescendingly.
Indeed, as a product of the 1940s and 1950s in the then-Jim Crow South, Clyburn seemed unlikely to embrace a game which consistently barred blacks from participating. Yet today, at 72, the Congressional icon remains as smitten with golf as when, as a youngster, he dug holes in his yard and created his own course - as he recounts in a two-page personal "Golfing History," available from his Columbia office.
Indeed, where many politicians shun talk of playing golf, Clyburn's office has been known to issue his playing itinerary to the media.
"It's so individualized, just you against the elements," Clyburn once said in explaining his passion for the game. "I can go to a driving range, be the only person there, hit the ball, and get my frustrations out that way. And I really do believe we reap what we sow, so I think a sport where you're obliged to call penalties on yourself ... helps mold you into a much better person."
But Clyburn doesn't just play golf. Indeed, he has made it, in many ways, an adjunct to his political career. In 2007, the City of Columbia's inner-city golf facility was renamed the James E. Clyburn Golf Center in recognition of the Congressman's support; legendary African-American PGA Tour player Calvin Peete attended the ceremony.
And each summer (Aug. 3-4 this year), Clyburn hosts the Rudolph Canzater Memorial Classic - named for his late friend and playing partner - at six courses in the Santee Cooper area, with proceeds funding scholarships (more than 3,000 to date over 23 years) at South Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina, his alma maters.
"People there tell me my golf weekend is the biggest one at Santee," Clyburn says. "In 2011, the Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism gave us the (Charles A. Bundy) Award, which goes to the entry with the greatest economic impact in rural South Carolina, and in 2012 we got an award from the Tri-County Commission (Orangeburg, Berkeley, Dorchester counties). It's a real family affair."
Golf has been part of Clyburn's political career, too, he says. "Golf has helped me build bridges among my colleagues on both sides of the aisle," he said. "I always say if I play a round of golf with a guy, I can tell you a whole lot about him."
Golf has told a lot about Clyburn. While working for Gov. John West and later as head of the S.C. Human Affairs Commission, he used his high profile and connections to advance the cause of blacks playing previously whites-only courses around South Carolina. He also parlayed a strong game - his handicap even now hovers around a 12; "I'm still figuring out the new GHIN (handicap system)," he says - into relationships with other powerful men in Washington, D.C.
But his favorite playing partner, at least until recently, has been his grandson, A.C. Reed, a 19-year-old attending Coastal Carolina University. "He said he wasn't going to do anything his freshman year until he settled in," Clyburn says. "And he made the Dean's List." Alas, A.C. these days seems more enamored of track (he ran on a state-championship relay team at Richland Northeast High) than golf, though he has ambitions to play both for the Chanticleers, his grandfather says.
Clyburn plays at courses in Columbia and Orangeburg when home, and on vacations to Santee and Hilton Head. Indeed, if the weather cooperates, and the business of Congress allows, he's always ready to play. He tends to win, too, as he says a few fellow legislators can attest - especially his cousin, Bill Clyburn, a member of the S.C. House.
"He's very competitive, with himself and everyone else," Bill Clyburn said.
In golf, and in politics - both are Jim Clyburn's passions, after all.
Bio: Graduated from S.C. State (undergraduate) and South Carolina (law school); served in the administration of Gov. John West (1971-74), and as head of the S.C. Human Affairs Commission (1974-92); elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from S.C.'s Sixth District in 1992 and has won re-election since.
Highlights: Named vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in 2003; became chairman in early 2006; unanimously elected majority whip after 2006 election when Democrats won control of the House; named to newly created assistant leader position after 2010 election, when Democrats lost majority in House.
Where I play: "Well, if I had to name my favorite (course) in the (Sixth Congressional) District, it'd be a tie between Orangeburg Country Club and Santee Cooper Resort. That's where I have my memberships. What they did at Orangeburg is absolutely incredible; I played it before they redid it (in 2009), and they turned it into quite a track. It's the only golf course where I don't mind being in the sand traps.
"In Columbia, I really enjoy Spring Valley Country Club. And my cousin Bill has taken me to Sage Valley, near Graniteville, so those are four in the district I really enjoy. In Charleston, I've played the Ocean Course at Kiawah pretty often, and Coosaw Creek. When I play at Hilton Head, I really, really like Harbour Town, and I recently played Long Cove Club for the first time; what a great course, magnificent. And I also enjoy Port Royal, which has three or four courses."
Where I eat: "I would say there are a bunch of restaurants in Charleston that I really, really enjoy, including Magnolia's, Cypress, McCrady's and Anson's. And my favorite lunch place down there is Gullah Cuisine on U.S. 17 near Mount Pleasant.
"Around Columbia, I go to a few traditional places, especially Bert's Grill, which used to be next to Allen University and Benedict College but is now out on Spears Creek Church Road. When I'm gone all week (to Washington), mostly when I'm home I'll do breakfast with my kids and grandkids. There are two places we like: Cracker Barrel on Farrow Road, and the Lizard's Thicket on Forest Drive. One of my daughters likes Lizard's Thicket, the other likes going to Cracker Barrel, so we split between those two for breakfast. For lunch I'll go to the Palmetto Club, and if we go out evenings, I like to go to Bert's."
What I do for fun: "My family mostly gathers at Lake Marion. I've got a place there when the family can steal time. And every Christmas since 1972, we have a family gathering at Hilton Head, where we rent several houses. People asked me and my brothers, How did you keep that tradition going? And we said the first thing you have to do is, don't share the same house. Someone gets on your nerves? You go to your house.
"That week, we play golf every day the weather allows - about four-five foursomes every day - and then go to dinner every night, and we have Christmas dinner at my house; (brother) Charles has everyone over for New Year's Eve, and John hosts a big reception by my campaign committee. That's the big thing we do as family with all the kids and all the grandkids."