By John Kelly
Before President Clinton decides to make his Irish visit, someone should warn him just what he is likely to face. It doesn’t matter whether he arrives before or after the May 22 referenda on the Mitchell Agreement. He is going to be in trouble anyway. And his main problem will have nothing to do with politics.
Clinton, of course, has made an astounding contribution to the Irish peace process. Indeed he was the only U.S. president to devote himself so singlemindedly to the problem that has bedeviled Ireland for more than a quarter of a century. But none of this means that he will be shown the slightest mercy when he visits the four green fields. The Irish can be ungrateful people.
Lurking in the romantic, rolling mountains and green fields of the Kingdom of Kerry is his grim, unsmiling nemesis, Dick Spring, the former Labor party leader. Like a gunfighter in a spaghetti western, he has been waiting to add one more notch to his handle. Ever since he failed to hold a high dropping oval ball when he played rugby for Ireland, he has become a reformed character. He just doesn’t like to lose.
Now that he has so gracefully departed the political scene, he has departed on a grueling physical fitness campaign. He pounds up and down and even around the Kerry Mountains daily. He may even be pumping iron as well. He is a man transformed.
In short, he is a redoubtable opponent in every game that is more physically demanding than tiddly winks. By all accounts, he has become particularly adept at the game of golf. In Tralee, spies reveal that he practices most days.
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The questions that Clinton will have to ask himself as he faces his shaving mirror every morning are questions concerning character and skill.
First and foremost, how well is the president driving? While it is not a question that seems to preoccupy the men and women of the Washington press corps, it will certainly be one of the sternest examinations that “Arkie Bill” will face in Ireland.
When he stands on that windswept first tee in Ballybunion, there will be no thoughts of the Mid-East peace process. Even the Northern peace process will be forgotten. The only question that will occupy and fully unite all of the sports people of Ireland will be their assessment of Bill Clinton – the golfer.
Beside him, his biggest Big Bertha in hand, will be his determined foe, the smiling Spring, coiled as tightly as his name suggests and ready to pounce with the snarl of the Celtic Tiger. It will be a duel to the death, one of the most spectacular showdowns the sporting world will ever witness.
The first hole at Ballybunion will answer a lot of the questions. It appears to be very inviting from the tee, with lots of wide-open fairway. But unless that first drive is straight, long and true, the fairway gradually sucks the unwary into an undulating nightmare, fearsomely worsened by yawning bunkers and fringed with deep, tight “bent,” as Irish golfers describe seaside grass.
The fickle gods of golf will have to be on Bill’s side if he is not to revealed to be a complete duffer. It has been reported that an emissary is currently on a visit to Ireland to ascertain whether the president should take on his greatest challenge before or after the island decides to support or shun the agreement.
Don’t be fooled by such rumors. The emissary, a keen golfer himself, is reported to have inspected Ballybunion very closely. When he returns to Washington, he will write a detailed, hole-by-hole, hazard-by-hazard report. The presidential dignity is at stake. American prestige is up for grabs. The president cannot lose 15 bucks – five the first nine, five the second, and five overall to Dick Spring.
Almost certainly, he will be advised to practice some shots that few American amateurs ever have to perfect. He will have to learn to chip and run great distances. Playing with a seven to four iron, depending on his distance from the green, he will have to use either like a putter, rapping the ball onto the green as close to the cup as possible. And he will have to do so before the highly critical eyes of an expert gallery.
Undoubtedly, that gallery will be as great as any witnessed at the Irish Open and the spectators will be jut as critical. Loyalists and Nationalists alike will focus on the really important questions. They will note that while Spring may continue to smile, his eyes will be watchful, his long fingers lightly veiled around the shaft of his club.
Bill Clinton will face the wrath of judgment. How long can he drive? How straight is the shot? Can he float out of a greenside bunker and plop his ball softly six inches from the tiny white cup? Can he chip like Christy O’Connor Sr., or does he putt like Ben Hogan?
Never mind David Trimble or Gerry Adams? Bill Clinton will be quite busily occupied for four hours or so in an attempt to tame one of Ireland’s toughest seaside links.
And Dick Spring will be right alongside him, protecting Ireland’s international golfing reputation.
Hopefully, he will drop the ball often this time – into every little white cup with as few shots as possible.
This could be the start of some great new international competition, involving all of the world’s statesmen golfers. It could be the best diplomatic initiative since the peace process. It could even replace global wars.
One should risk a small wager on the chance that the carpet in the Oval Room is showing signs of remarkably strange wearing in the last five years, just like it was in the days of dear old Ike.
Incidentally, it is understood that Spring is planning a rematch in Atlanta, just like the American Civil War.