BOGOTA, COLOMBIA l Bill Clinton came to Colombia to play golf this past week, in the pro-am for the Nationwide Tour’s season opening event, and the mere presence of the former U.S. president in this South American land of 45 million people says a lot about the state of affairs here.
If Clinton is indeed the Comeback Kid, an appellation hung on him years ago by pundits awed by his ability to snatch political victories from seemingly certain defeats, then Colombia is the Comeback Country, much safer and stronger than it has been in decades.
Clinton well remembers how bad things were in this South American land, recalling in a talk at a pre-tournament reception how narco-traffickers once controlled 35 percent of the country. Left unmentioned but completely understood by those in the audience who lived through those terrible times were the ways in which a left-wing guerilla group known by acronym FARC also threatened Colombia’s legitimacy through rampant killings and kidnappings, and how those two elements nearly destroyed what Clinton described as America’s “best ally in South America and the oldest democracy” on that continent.
There is no way an American president, sitting or retired, would have even considered traveling to this sprawling, traffic-choked metropolis some 8,300 feet above sea level a decade ago, for it was rightfully regarded then as one of the most dangerous places on earth. And the PGA Tour would have been labeled loco for even thinking of staging one of its events in this capital city.
But here they all were last week, in a resource-rich nation where the annual economic growth rate is approaching an impressive six percent and an enthusiasm for the future has replaced the abject anxiety of the past: Clinton playing golf with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos and Nationwide Tour pro D.J. Brigman, and promoting the work of the Clinton Foundation through the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative (CGSGI), while a formidable field of Nationwide Tour players competed for the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship.
Don’t tell any of them that Colombia isn’t coming back.
Clinton arrived in Bogota early Tuesday morning of tournament week, direct from Lagos, Nigeria, where he had spoken at a Clinton Foundation event the night before. He professed to be tired after such a long, overnight haul as he walked unescorted into the hotel by the club where the tournament was being played. But he later spoke about being energized by returning to a country he first got to know as president in 1998, and which he tried to help through a U.S. Government initiative called Plan Colombia.
Now, Clinton’s assistance for a place he has visited several times centers on CGSGI, which he and philanthropist Frank Giustra have used to launch projects to develop sustainable, market-driven businesses and improve health care in Bogota and other areas in Colombia – and which is the selected charity for this week’s Nationwide Tour event.
Clinton came to the pro-am reception on Tuesday night and had his picture taken with each team. After making formal remarks to the group, in which he declared, to applause, “the country belongs to the people of Colombia again,” and added, “I love working here,” he retired for the night, reappearing the next day for his game. Dressed in white shirt and slacks and wearing a blue embroidered belt with American flags, he hit balls on the range of the Bogota Country Club, muttering to himself about posture and position and the ways in which he could improve each shot.
He pulled clubs out of a tour-size TaylorMade bag and chuckled about how he needed to thin out his stash of sticks before starting play, as he clearly had more than the legal limit of 14. The former president shook hands with well-wishers between swings and posed for the occasional photograph. Then, he strode to the first tee, where a gallery several deep had gathered all around. It was that way wherever Clinton went in Bogota, as locals returned his passion for Colombia with their enthusiasm for his presence and his support.
In spite of his hard work on the range, Clinton had trouble with his first drive, duck-hooking it into the trees on the left. But he took advantage of golf’s version of a presidential pardon – a mulligan – when it was offered. Then, he was off.
As was the case with many of the groups in the pro-am, the one that included a former U.S. president did not get in a full 18 holes, as play was halted after five hours – and players brought in. (Note to PGA Tour: perhaps this is one way to deal with your slow play issues; five hours, and you are done.) Clinton was only able to finish 16 holes, and shortly thereafter was headed home. But he didn’t go straight to New York, as he and his colleagues stopped in Cartagena to refuel first, and to have dinner at a favorite Clinton eatery there.
More evidence that Colombia is coming back. And you can be sure Bill Clinton will be coming back, too.