Governor Haley Barbour is in charge on the course

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

MADISON, Miss. - When the most powerful man in the state makes the rules on the first tee, you better listen.

As Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour prepares to tee off at Annandale Golf Club, he turns around to the three foursomes in his golfing party and sets the record straight.

"We'll have mulligans on the first tee," said Barbour, who is wearing tan pants and a black shirt. "It is a proclamation. You get one per customer."

Barbour might sound like that former Democratic President who uses mulligans like they're mandatory, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Barbour is as Republican as they come. He's a close friend of President George W. Bush and a former Republican National Party chair.

He'll be a major player during this year's presidential campaign as the race between Bush and John Kerry heats up. He's already been quoted regularly, bashing Kerry's positions on a number of issues.

"The more people get to know John Kerry, the better they will like George Bush," Barbour stated proudly.

Barbour has climbed the political ladder over the years since graduating from law school at Ole Miss in 1973. In the mid-1980s, he served as an advisor to President Ronald Reagan for two years as Director of the White House Office of Political Affairs.

"Reagan loved jokes. He liked me because I knew a lot of jokes," Barbour said.

From there, his political career has taken flight. From 1993 to January 1997, he served two terms as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, including the 1994 elections when Republicans won GOP control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades.

Barbour, who also served on two key committees that helped Bush get elected in 2000, also founded Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, which Fortune magazine ranked as the nation's top lobbying firm.

He has used his political clout to make a successful return to his home state. By winning the gubernatorial race last November, he became only the second GOP leader in Mississippi since the Reconstruction. He sparked a campaign race that was the most expensive in state history and brought out the state's highest voter turnout ever, up by 100,000 votes.

But on this recent day, his focus is golf, not the future of the free world. The former Ole Miss baseball player can swing a good stick - he's a 14 handicap - but obviously, with his duties, he doesn't get much time to sharpen his game.

He doesn't need his mulligan, but his tee ball fades meekly to the right in the howling wind just short of a fairway bunker.

"I didn't hit it far enough to get into trouble," he said.

By the end of the day, he's held up against a rugged wind and a tough course. Annandale, arguably the most prestigious private club in the state, hosts the PGA Tour's Southern Farm Bureau Classic, Mississippi's only pro event (in any sport). The 7,199-yard course, designed by Jack Nicklaus in 1980, plays long and tough.

He shoots a respectable 88 (Pretty good, considering the 100 this 14-handicapper posted).

The following day doesn't go as well. The nationally ranked Azaleas course at the Dancing Rabbit Golf Club doesn't give the governor any home-state bounces. He puts his first tee ball into the woods, but that's OK. Like so many golfers, he's come to expect the ups and downs of the game.

"When we lived in Washington D.C., I almost never played," he said. "It's a good thing we have a great time, because in the whole family, I'm the least (talented) golfer."

Golf has become a family passion. His wife Marsha is a 10-handicap and one of their two sons, Reeves, is a six. Marsha remembers sending Reeves to Pinehurst Resort and Country Club when he was little, only to see him come back with blisters everywhere on his feet from golfing too much.

"We love to play," Gov. Barbour said. "This is something we can do together."

Marsha chimes in playfully as to why her husband plays: "He needs humbling."

"She beats me like a drum (on the course)," Gov. Barbour admits.

One of Gov. Barbour's favorite family memories was a golf trip in 1998 to northern California, where they were spoiled on rounds at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point, San Francisco's Olympic Club and Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz.

He's taken the leadership role in Mississippi seemingly at a perfect time. The state's reputation as a golf destination is gaining ground. Besides the luxurious 36-hole Dancing Rabbit Golf Club in Philadelphia, Tunica (with its nine casinos and three courses), the Gulf Coast and the Magnolia Golf Trail (a marketing alliance of 14 of the state's top public courses formed in 2002) are raising the state's visibility to traveling players.

"People in (most) parts of the country don't understand how great the golf is here," he said. "We can play year-round. There are many days in January and February when you can't play, but March is spectacular weather."

Come November, Mississippi's golf season will still be in full swing, but you can bet Barbour won't be. There's a little thing called the U.S. Presidential Election in the way.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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