Clyburn likes family respite, green fairways of Hilton Head Island

04/17/2014 7:17 PM

04/17/2014 8:28 PM

The early buzz on U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's new memoir is the part about a 2 a.m. phone call from Bill Clinton.

Clyburn writes that the former president left a profanity-laced tirade on his message machine on the night of 2008 South Carolina presidential primary. He said his old ally held him personally responsible for Hillary Clinton's 29-point loss to Barack Obama.

The sharp elbows of politics, which Clyburn can play with the best of them as a top Democratic leader in the House, is one reason he likes to walk the fairways of Hilton Head Island.

His memoir, due out May 5 from the University of South Carolina Press, traces a life of political and civil rights activism that began not long after his birth in Sumter in 1940.

But as Clyburn played both the Monday and Wednesday pro-ams this week at the RBC Heritage Presented By Boeing in Sea Pines, he chatted about a different part of the memoir called "Blessed Assurances: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black."

Clyburn talked about golf, and how Hilton Head Island has long been an anchor for his family.

His addiction to golf began when his father, who was an evangelical preacher, gave him a golf club and a rubber ball.

"My dad didn't play," Clyburn said. "My dad was a big baseball guy. I don't know why he gave me that. It was probably the only thing he could afford that Christmas."

That gift, and years of playing the game, led to this Wednesday, when Clyburn was high-fived by his pro-am teammates for sinking a par putt on the 18th green of the Harbour Town Golf Links. His partners were PGA Tour pro Ernie Els, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Cleveland Golf founder Roger Cleveland and Boeing CEO and chairman Jim McNerney.

Clyburn thinks more African Americans should use golf to bridge gaps, get ahead, examine themselves, and have fun.

He talked about the days in the early 1970s when he integrated the staff of South Carolina Gov. John C. West.

"John West was a big golfer," Clyburn said. "I was the only person on the staff who played golf, so I got a lot of face time with the governor."

Clyburn regrets that more African American are not on the PGA Tour.

"That's why I got so big on the First Tee program," he said. "I think that's one of the answers to that problem."

The First Tee is designed to introduce children to the game who otherwise might not be exposed to it, and stress the character traits golf is supposed to teach.

"I tell young people this is the only sport I know where you are obliged to call penalties on yourself," Clyburn said. "Nobody watches you to see whether the ball went out of bounds. Nobody watches you to see whether the ball moved. It is your job to demonstrate what kind of character you possess."

Clyburn was criticized in 2007 for steering $3 million in defense funds to the First Tee program, especially because the nonprofit group's facility in Columbia is named the James E. Clyburn Golf Center.

"I took a lot of heat for that," Clyburn said this week, "but it was for military families and we now have the program on 110 military bases worldwide."

Clyburn said he started playing in Heritage pro-am tournaments before he was elected to Congress from the 6th District in 1992, when lines were drawn to enhance the chances of an African American holding the seat.

He also hosts a golf tournament each summer in the Santee area to fund college scholarships.

Clyburn's extended family usually comes to Hilton Head for a week during the Heritage, and then again from Christmas to New Year's. That includes brothers, cousins, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

"We've spent every Christmas here since 1972," he said. "We thought when our children grew up we would quit coming, but the grandchildren won't let us."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at

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