By the start of the seventh hole, it was clear I was in trouble. It wasn't yet 7 a.m. and the sun had just risen over Cape Arundel Golf Club, but I was already off the pace, with just 56 minutes remaining on the clock. Speed golf is not my game.
It is President Bush's game, however. He calls it cart polo. Bush has taken a leisurely game and turned it into what one reporter called a forced march -- on wheels. "He barely gets out of the cart, whacks it and he's gone," says Spike Heminway, Bush's longtime friend and frequent playing partner.
Others have dubbed it aerobic golf, or golf in the fast lane. "Do you know who the winner is in speed golf?" a Portland, Maine, doctor asked me. "The first one in the hole."
My challenge seemed simple enough. Beat the president's land speed records for 18 holes of golf: 1 hour 42 minutes for a foursome; 1 hour 37 minutes for a threesome. Normal golfers take more than four hours to complete a round; for the president, a leisurely round takes only 2 1/2 hours. As he told another foursome on Saturday, "We're not good, but we're fast." I sought out Ken Raynor, the club professional at Cape Arundel and the president's regular playing partner, for tips on speed golf. "Strike the ball solid and go like hell," he advised.
When he plays with the president, Raynor said, he's often back in the cart and moving before his ball has stopped rolling. "You don't stop and admire your shot," he said. "You don't throw grass up in the wind before you hit."
As I set out I knew the president had certain advantages. He knows the course intimately, so no pausing to figure out where the green is. He rides with a pro, who helps him choose the right club. He travels with a fleet of Secret Service agents who can clear his path. It's easier to play through a slow group when you're armed.
Still Raynor made it clear I had the biggest advantage of all. I was playing alone, riding solo, the first one out on the course on a dewy Sunday morning. For me there would be no waiting for slow partners.
I teed off just after 6 a.m. with a straight drive that failed to clear the ditch that runs across the fairway. I tried to concentrate on the next shot. It fell far short of the green. A wedge missed the back edge. Two putts and a double bogey. Who cares? What time is it?
For a pro like Raynor, the pace of the president's game can affect timing and quality. If Raynor guesses wrong on which club to hit, he can't walk back to the cart and get the right one. The cart, driven by the president, is probably already near the green. "There's definitely no deliberation over a shot," Raynor said.
At the seventh hole, I suddenly became conscious of every lost second. Should I take time to swat that mosquito on my leg or just hit my drive? Should I take time to clean my golf ball? I started to shave seconds wherever I could, but as I made the turn to the back nine, it was 7 a.m. I had been out less than an hour, with just 39 minutes 31 seconds left.
Bush plays a respectable game. His best score at Cape Arundel, according to a 1989 article in Golf World, is 76. Normally he shoots in the low to mid-80s. "You can very much see the athlete in his swing," Raynor told the magazine. "It's well coordinated." And how accurate is he? "What day of the week is it?" Raynor was quoted as saying.
Actually the president's strength is in his long game. Closer to the green it gets more dicey, and until he discovered the notorious Pole Kat putter, that long-stemmed creature used by some older pros afflicted by the yips (a case of the nerves when they stand over a putt), he was in real trouble on the green. "It's changed his game," Heminway said.
Golf is genetic with the president. His grandfather George Herbert Walker was president of the United States Golf Association. He donated the Walker Cup, awarded to the winner of the biennial competition between British and American amateurs.
Speed golf may be genetic too. "The Walkers used to play fast," Heminway said.
Heminway pointed out that Bush always seems in a hurry on the golf course when he comes to Kennebunkport for R&R. "He's on vacation and he's got a lot of things he wants to do. Go fishing, play horseshoes, play tennis, play with the grandchildren," he said.
But Heminway said Bush's game this year -- in both speed and quality -- has been affected by the Persian Gulf crisis. "He's not 100 percent thinking of golf," said his friend.
I wasn't thinking 100 percent golf when I started the back nine. I was thinking 100 percent speed. For a couple of holes, that actually helped my game, but on the 13th I dumped a shot into the mud, hit another into a trap and escaped with a 7. I tried to recall Raynor's advice. Hurry up until you're over the ball, then think only about a smooth swing. Right. What about the deafening sound of the ticking clock?
As I rolled up the 17th fairway, a man who saw I was alone shouted to me, "Who's winning?" I explained my mission. "No way!" he said. "No way!"
I hit a blind shot to the 17th green, which went left, and as I pulled a wedge and putter out of my bag, the timer on my watch started to beep. My hopes of beating 1 hour 37 minutes were gone. With one hole to play, I had five minutes to tie the foursome record.
The 18th was a blur. Long before, I had stopped replacing my head covers after every drive. Too much time. I had quit trying to read the lines on my putts, even stopped taking out the pins on the greens. On the 18th I started to run from the cart to the ball and back. A good drive, a well-hit 2-iron, a lousy chip shot and a missed putt. Bogey. Done.
I hit my stopwatch and looked down. It read 1 hour 43 minutes 19 seconds. Close, but unfortunately, close only counts in the president's other favorite sport. If this is vacation, get me home.