Nerve-racking. Awe-inspiring. A memory worth re-telling and luxuriating in again and again.
During a meeting with reporters this month, Kentucky Coach John Calipari clearly enjoyed talking about the round of golf he played on Aug. 23 with former President Barack Obama. It was easily apparent that this golfing experience was anything but par for the course, which in this case was the semi-private Farm Neck Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard.
Calipari made that immediately clear when the subject was raised. “Wow,” he said. “How about that?”
The spark that led to what sounded like a lasting memory was a chance meeting with Robert Wolf, who worked in the Obama administration and is a fan of basketball and the UK coach.
“And he said, ‘If you ever want to golf with him . . . ,’” Calipari recalled. Short answer: yes. Slightly longer answer: Oh, heavens, yes!
“I’m shameless,” Calipari said. “You don’t say that to me.”
There were reasons to hesitate. Calipari had not played 18 holes since having hip replacement surgery five years ago. And because of what Calipari saw as symptoms of plantar fasciitis, he considered walking 18 holes impossible.
When assured the players would ride in carts, Calipari had his clubs shipped to him in Boston. He lined up multi-day sessions with a golf pro. “See if I can get a swing,” he said. The pro suggested Calipari keep his driver in the bag and use a 3-wood off the tee.
Calipari acknowledged being nervous.
“I didn’t sleep the night before,” he said. “It was like we were in the national championship game.”
The weight of the presidency is supposed to dramatically age the office holder. But Calipari spoke of Obama’s youthful appearance. The former president looked 51 years old, Calipari said. Obama turned 58 on Aug. 4.
Anxiety accompanied the tee shot on the first hole.
“Now, I haven’t started breathing yet,” Calipari said. “So I have a little blue tint to me. And I get to standing over the ball and I hear rustling. What?!”
Two Secret Service officers are behind the foursome. Two more are to the side. And Calipari later learned two more were ahead of the players when he hit a wayward shot into the woods and someone yelled, Fore!!
“Why are you saying fore,” Calipari recalled saying. “And I see a guy scurry out of the woods.”
As he prepared to tee off on No. 1, Calipari heard more rustling. He looked back and saw people on the deck of the clubhouse taking pictures and video of the players.
Calipari said his first tee shot went about 220 yards down the middle of the fairway. When Obama questioned the UK coach’s claim of being a 20-handicap player, Calipari recommended the former president not rush to judgment. A grounder off the second tee settled that.
Calipari tweeted a photo of himself and Obama in a golf cart. Judging by the comments posted on Twitter, Calipari playing golf with Obama divided at least a portion of the Big Blue Nation along partisan lines.
The UK coach seemed to allude to critical comments when he said, “If it aggravated anybody, very good. Glad about it.”
Calipari said he would be willing to play a round in the future with the current president, Donald Trump. He said that he had not read the book about Trump’s golf experiences authored by Rick Reilly and titled, Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.
Calipari struck a bi-partisan tone when he said he’d met Bill Clinton and would like to play golf with George W. Bush.
“The president I didn’t get to meet that I really wanted to meet was Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I would’ve loved to have spent time with him. I just liked his leadership, in convictions, that he wasn’t budging. Wasn’t always right. I think there are things that weren’t right. But he believed it and he took a nation and brought people together, and he was a leader. And he was Republican, so . . .”
John Calipari, who turned 60 in February, signed a so-called lifetime contract this year. Does that mean the regular mention of him as a possible candidate for NBA coaching jobs will end?
Calipari said he confirmed to someone that he would not be interested in an NBA coaching job.
“Why? I’m at Kentucky,” he said. “If I were at someplace else and I’m in the muck of all this stuff . . . , I’d probably say enough. I’m out.”
Calipari said he still enjoys recruiting, meeting people and helping players and their families change their lives by realizing basketball dreams.
As for the seemingly annual flirtations with NBA openings, Calipari said, “I listened because I should listen. Most of the people I’m talking to I know. Most of the time I talk to people it’s to help other people. So I’m trying to help someone else get something.”
Calipari said he liked a comment UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart made at a staff meeting about a lifetime contract.
“He said, ‘You all have a lifetime position here. Just do your job and do it well and you’ve got a lifetime job here. I’m not going to let anybody go,’” Calipari said.
Calipari’s lifetime contract enables him to continue working for UK even if he stops coaching.
“I don’t want to coach until I’m 70, but I still wanted to be paid something,” he quipped. Then he asked reporters, “why are you laughing?”