Golf and the American Presidency


American Presidents Play Golf

Many of us in the states this week were quick to notice that President Obama played golf for his 51st birthday, and the statistics began to pour out for American presidents and this favorite White House game. Strange, that the American public enjoys golf so much, but casts a disapproving eye if it sees the president enjoying its benefits. Shouldn’t he be sitting in a windowless room dealing with a crisis twenty four seven, on the edge of a stroke (no pun intended)?

It is said that some of them were pretty good golfers. Dwight Eisenhower was a natural athlete anyway, having excelled in baseball and golf, almost All-American, but multiple injuries to a knee prevented him from continuing. He took up golf at the age of 37, and reached a respectable level of play, even getting three or four holes in every morning during his time in Europe. During his presidency, he played eight hundred rounds, leaving the modern Bush/Obama critics with little to complain about. Ike’s presidency saw the number of courses in America double. Coming from a humble background, he was not taken as an elitist, and retired as an honorary lifetime member of St. Andrews.

And what was the best way for Richard Nixon to speak with the president? Take up golf, of course. And take it up he did, more like a doctoral dissertation than an enjoyable game. Severely hampered by a lack of talent, his awkward swing managed two hundred yards at best, despite a decent short game. He had a three-hole course built for him back home, to no avail.

Nixon’s nemesis, John F. Kennedy was a good player. For Nixon, Kennedy was that guy in high school who just comes off better and looks better doing it, no matter what you do. At his best, Kennedy had a 7 – 10 handicap.

The 38th President, Gerald Ford, really gave it the old college try, having been an excellent athlete as well. Jack Nicklaus was in charge of the Presidential Drive, Hale Irwin the short game, and Dave Stockton the putting. With that sort of cabinet, the world was certainly safe for democracy, at least inside the ropes. Much has been made, though, of Ford’s errant drives, and he himself described a round in which he hit an eagle, a birdie, an elk and a moose.

Ronald Reagan, the “Gipper,” (another college athlete) was a good player, taking a lot of time out during his acting and executive career. He rarely played as Chief Executive, however. Jimmy Carter’s legacy is mostly golf equipment, such as divot repair tools. His critics laud the gadget as a good way to dig out of hole you’ve made.

President Obama played twenty four rounds in his first nine months in office. George Bush Jr. took almost three years to do the same. Bill Clinton was an avid player, but Bush Jr. warned him, joining Clinton in Haiti for the charitable foundation, that he’d better stop doing so much good – it would wreck his game.

All of the American presidents could learn a lesson from Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, who played mini-golf in Buffalo in his last visit to the U.S. It was both modest and economical, and as the Prime Minister was quick to point out, he paid for the round himself.

The presidential golf complaint is heard every election cycle, but students of history can relax, no matter how blasé the White House might seem making the turn at the back nine. One president overwhelms them all, statistically speaking. Woodrow Wilson played a whopping 1,200 rounds of golf during his presidency, and with what was going on in 1919, one can scarcely imagine how he fit it all in.

In the end, the Republicans seem to sport the better golf team historically, but it has no electoral implications, so everyone will just have to keep swinging.


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1 comment

    • Jeff Howard on March 17, 2013 at 4:41 pm
    • Reply

    I know Clinton was a caddy in the late 50s.

    I was too (not in the 50s!) but I’ve always found things like the presidents always playing Golf, and why they tend to do that as their game of choice, fascinating. Obama has been more of a rebel (not wanting to ‘schmooze’ as much for fund raising, putting in a sculpture of MLK in his office, etc) – he played basketball, and I’m not certain how prominent a golfer he was before he entered the white house. There is something about the game (mentioned in another post) that yields to men in high places, ambitious, and desirous of wielding power!
    Something funny on Clinton:
    He was invited to play at Augusta, “but they don’t like Secret Service Agents schlepping around the course” – also Hilary and his daughter Chelsea didn’t like the no woman policy.

    Your stat on Woodrow Wilson is concerning – something ever important in goal achievement is ‘total focus’ and absolute devotion to a field/career/topic. It strikes me as odd someone whose goal is running a nation is playing golf so much! (Then again, maybe there was internal family strife, and 1200 rounds was his outlet – haha).

    I just found this (aha!) which does some explaining.

    “ Wilson was, as well, diagnosed with arteriosclerosis. Accordingly, Wilson’s White House physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, recommended a severely restricted work schedule for his patient. As President, Woodrow Wilson never normally worked more than three or four hours per day. He rarely worked on Sundays.”

    Anyway, now he comes a new and more interesting question – when the first female takes on the oval office..

    Will she play Golf?


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