Not Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., though; that would be hitting a bit close to home – and not just because Graham is among a handful Senators from both parties who dare to compromise on some issues.
“I’ve got a lot to criticize President Obama about,” he says with a laugh, “but not about him playing golf.”
That’s because Graham understands the passion for hitting the links. He’s afflicted with it himself, and has been ever since high school, when he first accompanied his father, F.J. “Dude” Graham (a one-time textile league baseball catcher), and his uncle Hollis Honeycutt to their hometown course, Oconee Country Club.
“My fondest memories are of them taking me out there,” Graham says. “I’ve been playing golf with guys I grew up with for, oh, 40 years; there’s nothing better than beating your buddies.
“A round of golf is a great way to meet new people, too. You’re out of doors, and you can make it competitive with handicaps. It’s a game you can play most of your life if you stay healthy. I just love it – it’s one thing that gets me away from the job, makes me think ‘why can’t I hit this ball?’” instead of worrying about immigration, gun control or healthcare issues.
Since winning the seat held by longtime U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who served until he was 100 years old, Graham has become a “player” on the Washington, D.C., scene. He clearly enjoys that role – but being a “player” on the golf course is at least as enjoyable.
Graham, whose handicap index was reported as 13.4 in a recent Golf Digest article on politics and golf (in 2005, his then-15 handicap tied for 110th among inside-the-Beltway luminaries), was good enough to play one season for his Daniel High School team. He says his handicap has ranged as low as a sometimes-erratic 12.
“I can shoot 39 (on the front nine) … and 51 (on the back), routinely,” he says.
But golf isn’t just for escaping politics. Graham says playing has helped his career, too.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” he says. “When people want to give you money for a campaign, if you take them to a nice golf course, they’re more fired up. They might not be the biggest fans of yours, but in four or five hours you get to understand each other. It’s one of the best games in the world for getting to know someone.”
Neither Graham nor his fellow South Carolina legislator (and political opposite), Democrat Rep. James Clyburn, subscribes to the common notion that politicians need to eschew playing golf, as have presidents ranging from John F. Kennedy (a very good player who hid that fact) to George W. Bush, who quit after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, saying it wasn’t appropriate during a war.
“When you’re in a stressful job, whether raising kids or being president, I have no problem with someone playing golf,” Graham says. “I don’t hide the fact; in fact, the only reason I haven’t played more is I can’t find the time.”
When he does, though, Graham enjoys building memories. Besides those father-uncle-son matches from his youth, two of his favorites came during rounds at Augusta National (where he made “150 yards of putts,” he says) and in Ireland.
“I was playing at Lahinch, had a 440-yard, par-4 dead into a howling wind,” he says. “I turned to my caddie and said: ‘What’ll you give me if I (reach the green) in two?’ And he says, ‘I’ll tip YOU.’
“I hit a screamer of a drive, 20 feet off the ground, rolled forever, then a 3-wood like the preacher from (the movie) ‘Caddy Shack’ onto the green. And (the caddie) turned and handed me 20 euros.”
Graham laughs. “There’s one caddie in Ireland who thinks I’m good.”
Most of his non-political, recreational golf has come in his home state. “It’s a great way to interact with folks, and the golf industry is a huge part of South Carolina’s tourism industry,” he says. The senator does his part to help, from wearing South Carolina-themed apparel to adding to his collection of logo golf balls from each of the state’s colleges.
Graham’s weekends often involve a round at his home course, Cross Creek in Seneca, and he tries to work in a game on travels around the state. “I have a dream trip,” he says, “where I start in North Myrtle Beach, play all the way down the coast to Hilton Head, come up through Aiken, go to Oconee and Greenville, then I work my way over to (the) Charlotte (area).”
He laughs at the notion. “To put that together,” he says, “I’d have to live as long as Strom.”
Bio: Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, the first Republican from South Carolina’s Third Congressional District since 1877; won re-election in 1996, 1998 and 2000; succeeded retiring U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond in 2002 election, defeating Charleston’s Alex Sanders; became the state’s senior senator in 2005 when Ernest “Fritz” Hollings retired; easily won re-election in 2008 over North Myrtle Beach’s Bob Conley.
Highlights: Serves on a half-dozen Senate committees, including Armed Services, Budget, Homeland Security, Judiciary and Veterans’ Affairs; campaigned for Republican Presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 and is closely linked with the Arizona Senator on many issues.
Where I play: “If I had just one more round to play, I’d like go back to Oconee Country Club, where it all started for me with my dad and my uncle.
“I’m headed to Charleston (on a recent weekend) and I’m getting excited because The Ocean Course at Kiawah is just the best links golf in the entire country. I’ve also played at Musgrove Mill near Clinton, which is a great track. There are so many places in South Carolina; Harbour Town is hard to beat. When I’m home, I play at Cross Creek, which was built by Pete Dye’s son, P.B. Dye, the first golf course he designed. Some of those undulating, mounded greens (are so difficult), you can chip from one side to the other forever.
“The best golf deal in all of South Carolina is Orangeburg Country Club. Denise Falls, who ran my first campaign, is from Orangeburg; her husband, Richard, is my best friend and he plays there every weekend. What (club owner Frank) Tourville has done there is amazing. For what it costs, it’s the best golf investment in the state, really topnotch.
“Truth is, South Carolina is a Mecca for golf. Some (Congressmen) go to Washington, D.C., and never come home, but I can’t understand that. I like my job, but I can’t wait to get home. We’ve got our share of problems, but South Carolina is a beautiful place. And for golf, there’s nowhere better on the planet. We’re blessed that way.”
Where I eat: “I really enjoy Magnolia’s in Charleston; I’ll be eating there tonight,” he says on the day of this interview. “At Hilton Head, I like Hudson’s, a good seafood place. And I like all of downtown Greenville, which has become absolutely an incredible place to eat and do things. There’s Brioso, an Italian place in Clemson. I have to watch it doing this, because there are just so many good places to eat in South Carolina; Charleston, in terms of quality and value, is the best place to eat in the world.”
What I do for fun: “I love to hunt, and I love college sports. Hunting, I shoot birds, nothing that can fight back. I pull for Clemson and South Carolina, except when they play each other. And we’ve got good small-division sports, too. For the best time, you’ve got to go to a game at South Carolina State. I love being around (retired football coach) Willie Jeffries, he’s a great storyteller.”