LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Not long ago I saw a video of William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, playing golf. Taft, who weighed almost 400 pounds, is whaling away hopelessly at the golf ball with an old hickory-shafted club. During his four years in the White House from 1909 to 1913, the Ohioan was the first president to openly play a game that still to this day is a source of political divisions.
"My time is being pretty well filled up now," Taft told friends while he was in office, "especially as I insist on taking the whole afternoon for golf."
In 1911, Taft advised middle-aged and older men to take up the game. "It will be a rest and recreation from business cares, and at the same time increase their physical vigor and capacity for work, as well as improve their health, and men and women of sedentary habits will be enabled to get this splendid form of exercise," he told American Golfer magazine.
One hundred years later, Bill Clinton is trying to fulfill Taft's vision with his inaugural "Health Matters: Activating Wellness in Every Generation" conference, which was held at the Renaissance Esmeralda Indian Wells Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, Calif. The event, sponsored by the Clinton Foundation and the Humana Corporation, brought together a diverse panel, which included golf figures Tim Finchem, Annika Sorenstam and Notah Begay, to discuss strategies to promote healthier lifestyles.
For years Clinton had been a poster child for unhealthy living. He worked 100-hour weeks and subsisted off of junk food. He was the kind of jogger who would make pit stops at McDonald's. But then he had quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004, which saved him from a heart attack, and seven months later he had another procedure to fix a partially collapsed lung.
"I was a heart attack waiting to happen," Clinton said later.
That wake-up call pushed Clinton, 65, to change his lifestyle and to forge new campaigns to attack childhood obesity and unhealthy living. The Humana Challenge, which starts Thursday on three golf courses in La Quinta, is underwritten by Humana, the health-care behemoth, in partnership with the PGA Tour and the Clinton Foundation. Clinton is trying to use the tournament to raise awareness of the need to make more positive choices about diet, exercise and lifestyle. Pedometers and biometric booths to check blood pressure will be available to fans.
In October, when Clinton's new relationship with the PGA Tour was announced in New York, PGA Tour commissioner Finchem noted that the average tour player walks more than 650 miles a year on the golf course and that a PGA Tour event, where fans get exercise from walking around the golf course, is a perfect venue to promote wellness and healthy living.
Yet golf is the rare sport in which players can smoke on the field of play and fans can chomp on cigars while they watch the action. It may not be evident on TV screens which players are smoking, but there are still a number of tour pros who take drags off cigarettes between shots. It's not so much a problem as it is a common unspoken reality of the game that stretches back to the days when Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer chain-smoked on the course during their rounds.
Still, the players are in far better shape today than they have ever been. A walk down the range here at the Palmer Private course shows mostly fit players with slim waistlines and flat stomachs.
One of those excellently fit players is Jhonny Vegas, the 27-year-old defending champion of the Humana Challenge.
"The whole idea of having Bill Clinton and his foundation and Humana by the tournament brings something new to the PGA Tour," Vegas said. "I really hope to see more of this health focus come on the tour. When it comes down to them pushing the health thing, I think everybody can get better physically.
"I think having Clinton behind the tournament has really helped make this a strong field. It would be fun to meet him," adds the Venezuelan, who says he also would like to meet his country's president, Hugo Chavez. "I have never met a president. So it would be fun to meet Clinton."
At the Health Matters conference, which lasted all day, Clinton told stories of his times with Bob Hope, who invited him to the tournament in 1995. There, he became the first sitting President to compete in a PGA Tour event when he was paired with two other golfing presidents, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and the defending champion, Scott Hoch. He also recounted his 30-year relationship with Finchem.
Looking thin, Clinton, who says he is now a vegan, also called childhood obesity the No. 1 health issue in America. But perhaps his most politically resonant comments of the day came on the subject of the present economy.
"One of the reasons middle-class Americans will never get a raise is because their employers are paying higher health-care premiums every year," Clinton said. "We're never going to get back to a full-employment economy unless we change.
"For the next 18 years, we are about to play havoc with the normal demographic distribution of the country," Clinton said. "We have to stay healthy."
During Saturday's third round, the 42nd president will play with Greg Norman, who at 56 years old is as trim and fit as he was back in the late 1980s and early '90s when he was the best player in the world.
In President Taft's day, Walter Travis was one of the best amateurs in the world at the turn of the 20th century, before he became a noted golf-course architect. Travis, who won three U.S. Amateurs, played a lot of golf with the president and said of his game: "Unlike most golfers who are not in the front ranks, he plays every stroke in good form has nothing to 'unlearn' or correct and needs only some steady practice to develop a strong game."
What a wonderful appraisal of the game of America's first presidential duffer. While Clinton, who notoriously loves a mulligan or two in his rounds, probably couldn't garner such a critique from his contemporaries, he has at least fulfilled the big-bellied president's call to action to promote golf as a wonderful sanctuary for health and wellness and even look the part of good health, something Taft never could do in his lifetime.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.