By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LA QUINTA, California (Reuters) - While Bill Clinton's involvement with the Humana Challenge has given the tournament a much needed boost, the former U.S. president hopes to add further luster with a visit by President Barack Obama.
Both men are keen amateur golfers and Clinton believes Obama would relish a trip to the California desert to see what the $5.6 million PGA Tour event is doing away from the course to help raise awareness about health.
Since 1960, the popular pro-am tournament has donated more than $52 million to Eisenhower Medical Center and a variety of local charities with last year's edition raising a record total of almost $2.1 million.
"I would like to talk him (Obama) into coming out here," Clinton, whose own charitable foundation linked up with the Humana Challenge last year, told a news conference at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday during the opening round.
"I came once as president for (tournament host) Bob Hope and I think it would really mean a lot to him (Obama). He and Michelle Obama could look at some of this (health awareness) stuff that's part of what they're trying to do."
"I would be doing him a favor if I brought him here next year," Clinton added with a grin. "He has become a total golf nut and, you know, he never got to play very much before."
The two men have played golf together on several occasions, most recently at Andrews Air Force Base where they completed just 13 holes before Obama had to leave because of work commitments.
"And he had the lowest score by far he had ever shot at Andrews, he was five shots ahead of me after nine holes," Clinton recalled. "But I'm older. I start slow and pick up.
"So I picked up four of those strokes in the first three holes of the back nine and so I'm only one down. And then he leaves at 13, says he's got to go.
"I said, 'Hey, you're talking to somebody that's had this job and made that excuse.' As it happened, we were playing partners, so I wanted him to shoot well."
Clinton certainly has the best interests of the Humana Challenge at heart since it was held in partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation, which was established to improve global health, strengthen economies and promote health and wellness.
He sought out the players to see how the long established pro-am event could be improved and, largely based of his findings, the format was changed from five rounds and four different venues to just four rounds and three venues.
Instead of playing with three amateurs, the professionals were paired in twos with two amateurs and golfing heavyweight Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman were among several players who competed last year after being personally asked by Clinton.
Mike McCallister, chairman of the board of Humana, was delighted with the significant upturn in the tournament's fortunes following Clinton's involvement.
"We had a 68 percent increase in attendance last year which was a nice bump," McCallister said on Thursday. "Outside of the majors, we had the sixth best field in the PGA Tour, so that says an awful lot about the new start here."
When Clinton was president, he played with former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, as well as long-time tournament host Bob Hope, during the 1995 edition.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)