When the president stepped to the tee box on the last day of 1998, he continued a personally treasured tradition of playing golf on Hilton Head Island.
Bill Clinton sliced his drive to a place no one wants to see on the Arthur Hills course in Palmetto Dunes Resort.
"Aw!" he yelled. "Can I play that over there?"
He hit another one, and then a third one.
Clinton took mulligans so often they were called "Billigans."
But the scene played like good clean fun in the photographs that flashed from the Lowcountry to news outlets around the world.
This raises a weighty question in the current presidential race: What's wrong with golf?
Last week, presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney continued his long-running rant against the game.
Romney scolded President Barack Obama for playing too much golf -- more than 90 rounds in the three years he's been president.
"I must say I scratch my head at the capacity of the president to take four hours off on such a regular basis to go golfing," Romney told a conservative radio host. "I would think you could kind of suck it up for four years, particularly when the American people are out of work."
A Romney website (http://fortyfore.com) asks for $18 donations "to send President Obama on a permanent golfing vacation."
It says: "It's time to have a president whose idea of being 'hands on' doesn't mean getting a better grip on the golf club."
Romney needs to get a better grip on reality.
'First Off The Tee'
Golf has had every chance to kill our nation, but it hasn't. Obama makes the 15th president of the last 18 who have played the game.
The game has been deeply intertwined with the lives of our presidents, as Don Van Natta Jr. shows in his 2003 book, "First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush."
Potshots from the gallery -- the public, the press and political opponents -- have been as constant as the preferential treatment presidents get on the links. Van Natta jokes that presidents generally can pick up anything within 75 yards.
The only presidents in this era who did not play golf were Harry S. Truman, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.
The best presidential golfers have been John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower -- who played 800 rounds during his eight years in the White House -- Gerald Ford and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though Roosevelt never played as president because polio stole one of his greatest loves.
Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft played virtually every day.
Most presidents have treated their time on the links, and their scores, as classified information, partly to avoid the image of goofing off and partly because the humbling game cut them no breaks.
Clinton, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Warren Harding are in a section of the book called "Hail to the Cheats."
Golf is a healthy part of life, and life does not end at the White House door.
On Hilton Head, Clinton's first stop was always the golf course. In his 2004 bestseller, "My Life," he writes:
"Hillary, Chelsea, and I spent New Year's (1993) in Hilton Head at Renaissance Weekend, as we had been doing every year for nearly a decade. I loved being with old friends, playing touch football on the beach with kids and a few rounds of golf with a new set of clubs Hillary had given me."
Golf equals jobs
Romney needs to know that golf is a $2.7 billion annual business in South Carolina.
A state study released Wednesday shows golf producing 35,000 jobs, $872 million in personal income and $312 million in federal, state and local taxes.
Maybe Romney can remember this: "It's the economy, stupid."
Hilton Head just hosted the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, a PGA Tour event that leaves $82 million in the local economy. The Heritage has been a driving force in the Lowcountry economy since it started in 1969.
In August, the PGA Championship will be played on Kiawah Island near Charleston. The College of Charleston estimates the tournament will have a $193 million economic impact.
These marquee events represent the grinding, year-round industry that's now under siege.
At a symposium on the golf industry this month at Clemson University, leaders heard that as many as 1,500 golf courses will close nationally in the coming decade. Yes, courses were overbuilt, but there's another problem: changing demographics and lifestyles. The game lost about 400,000 players over the past year alone, according to The (Anderson) Independent-Mail's coverage of the symposium, and 35 million fewer 18-hole rounds were played in 2011 compared to 1990.
When Romney slams golf he's slamming American people trying to work.
A quote by golf pro Jimmy Demaret in "First Off the Tee" shows why Romney would do well to quit carping and tee one high and let it fly.
"If the people wish to determine the best candidate (for president), put all the contenders on a golf course," Demaret said. "The one who can take five or six bad holes in a row without blowing his stack is capable of handling the affairs of the nation."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.