John Calipari is a Hall of Fame coach who’s been to six Final Fours, three NCAA Championships, and the NBA Playoffs; he knows stress. However, he claims one recent sporting event made him so nervous he turned blue: a round of golf with former President Barack Obama.
“I didn’t sleep the night before,” Calipari told a roundtable of reporters last week. “It was like we were in the national championship game. I did not sleep. And now, I haven’t started breathing yet, so I have a little blue tint to me.”
By now you’ve seen the pictures of Calipari and Obama together at Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard last month. Playing golf with the former president was one of the highlights of Calipari’s summer, and he opened his preseason media session by telling the tale. It all started with a fan.
“I met a guy. We talked and he was a big basketball fan and a big fan of mine,” Cal said. “He said he was friends with President Obama and I said, ‘Wow, that’s something.’ He said, ‘If you ever want to golf with him…’ I’m shameless. You don’t say that to me.”
Sure enough, while on vacation in Boston, Calipari called his new friend up and asked if it was possible to set up the golf date.
“I said, ‘Is he still at Martha’s Vineyard? Can I [see him]?’ He calls me and he said, ‘Next Friday the president wants to play with you.”
After joy came panic. Calipari hadn’t played a full round of golf since his hip replacement five years ago (longtime friend and coworker John Robic claimed it was more like 12 years, which Calipari said is “BS”), but the opportunity was too great to pass up.
“I think I have plantar fasciitis too, so I have my foot – my hope was we’re not walking because I couldn’t have made 18 holes. I knew it. But would you have played? Yeah. You play.”
So, Calipari had his golf clubs shipped to him and hired a pro to help him find his swing in a three-day bootcamp.
“After the first day, he said, ‘You’re probably right. Let’s put the driver in the bag and let’s just hit the three wood to see if you can get it up.’”
Running on no sleep, Calipari made his way to the course, where the nerves just got worse.
“So, I get there – and he looks unbelievable, by the way. He looks like he’s 35 years old — and he’s a good golfer. And I’m watching him swing and hit balls and I’m like, ugh.”
Knowing he couldn’t beat the president, Calipari adjusted his game plan.
“The great thing is, the fourth player was worse than me, so I’m good. So, it would be like if you or I were chased by a bear. I’ve just got to outrun you. So, I’m looking at him, and the other guy’s like a four handicap, so I’m thinking I’m good. If you’re this, I’ve just got to beat you.”
To the first hole they went. Calipari’s palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. Vomit on his polo already, Ellen’s spaghetti.
“I get to stand over the ball and I hear rustling. Like, what? And again, we had two [Secret Service people] out in front of us, two behind us, two beside us, and I later learn we have two in the woods because I hit one and they said, ‘Fore!’ and I’m like, saying fore, why are you saying fore? And I see a guy scurry out of the woods.
“I’m like, what in the hell is going on here? But I’m on the first tee and I hear this rustling, and I look back and there are all these people on the deck and they’re taking video of me taking this [swing]. And I haven’t breathed yet, I haven’t played in five years, and I’ve got to hit this ball. I go back and…”
Oh no, he shanked it, didn’t he?
“HELL NO, 220 DOWN THE MIDDLE!” Calipari exclaimed. “And they said, the president said, ‘You’re not a 20 handicap! I’ll be a 20 handicap.'”
Of course, the jig would soon be up, to his foursome at least. On the next hole, Calipari rolled it off the tee box.
“But it was a grounder and no one saw it though, so those guys that took the picture said, ‘This guy can really golf. He must be playing everyday.’”
Calipari didn’t go into details about what he and the president discussed over the four-hour round. Instead, he marveled about how young Obama looked considering the two are only a year apart in age.
“I asked him, ‘How in the world, what are you doing? Are your hips not bad, your knees not bad?’ And when I looked at him, I had to ask him, ‘How old are you?’ How old do you think he is? He’s 59. I thought he was like, 51. He’s 59.”
Cal likes to joke that U.S. presidents and UK Basketball coaches age at the same rate, but didn’t take the bait when asked if seeing Obama looking young and refreshed made him want to retire. He did, however, jab at the backlash the pictures of the two generated online.
“It was fun. Glad I did it and if it aggravated anybody, very good. I’m happy about that.”
In fact, Calipari didn’t rule out a round of golf with another polarizing political figure.
“I may do it next year,” Cal said when asked if he would play golf with President Trump. “This year, the summer’s over now.”
That might actually break the internet if it happens, but Calipari’s point was that the chance to play golf with a president transcends politics.
“I’d like to play with George W. [Bush]. I’ve been with President Clinton. I’m really – the president I didn’t get to meet that I really wanted to meet was Ronald Reagan. President Reagan. I would have loved to have spent time with him. I just liked his leadership. His convictions. That he wasn’t budging. It wasn’t always right. I think there were things that weren’t right, but he believed it and he took a nation and he brought people together and he was a leader.”
At the end the president helped me write this Callaway Strata review and we talked about our experience playing this sport on our free time.