Hail the Golfer in Chief: A History of Presidents Golfing
With the election coming right around the corner (Register to vote! https://www.vote.org/) we’ve decided to take a look back at golfing presidents through the ages. In fact, Donald Trump’s presidency marks the 10th consecutive term held by a golfing Commander-in-Chief.
Golf has always been a source of contention for presidents; as a leisure activity, being spotted on the course is ammunition for opponents to hurl insults of laziness, elitism, or dereliction of duty. Even if golf has become increasingly democratized and accessible to people of varying economic means, there’s something that rubs a lot of Americans the wrong way about seeing their leader away from their desk and out “relaxing” on a golf course.
But that’s as political as this post is going to get! From here on, we’re going to celebrate the game we love and how it has been enjoyed by various leaders of the free world. All hail these golfers in chief!
Golfer in Chief: Howard Taft (27th President)
Howard Taft was the first president to openly admit to being a golfer. Unsurprisingly, he was also the first president who was openly berated for doing so. Serving from 1909–1913, Taft’s golfing habit drew fire from opponents for the opulence the sport represented at the time. Believing the opposite, #27 said of the game:
“I know that there is nothing more democratic than golf; that there is nothing which furnishes a greater test of character and self-restraint, nothing which puts one more on an equality with one’s fellows, or, I may say, puts one lower than one’s fellows, than the game of golf.”
A Golf Addict
Beyond golf’s reputation as a rich man’s game, Taft’s opponents criticized how often the president played. He didn’t simply play a few rounds here and there, he flat out admitted to being “addicted” to the game. The president’s golfing got so out of control that his own predecessor and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, could no longer stay silent.
Golf led to the dissolution of the two men’s friendship, and became Teddy’s main ammunition against Taft in the 1912 election. One in which Roosevelt was so distraught by his own party’s support of Taft’s arrogance, that he chose to run as an independent. In the end, Woodrow Wilson would be victorious with Roosevelt getting the second most votes. Taft, the incumbent Taft came in a distant third.
Upon hearing the results, the outgoing POTUS did what any self-respecting golfer would do: he went to sleep and woke up early the next morning to play 18.
Golfer in Chief: Dwight D. Eisenhower (34th President)
Dwight was a legendary golfer. As a member of Augusta National, he is said to have played over 800 rounds over the two terms he spent in office. In the Winter of 1958, he played 14 days straight at the legendary home of The Masters, and in the Summer of ’59 was rumoured to have played 28 of the 31 days in July. It’s good to be the king.
Eisenhower’s love for golf helped popularize the sport and normalize it amongst world leaders. Playing often with Arnold Palmer, the president became an ambassador for the game, and is a big reason golf earned it’s reputation as a powerful sport among the titans of industry.
A Presidential Pardon
#34 was also the first “good” Golfer in Chief, with a respectable handicap that hovered between 14 and 18. He frequently played at Burning Tree, a private club on the Maryland side of DC that city planners designated for alteration to accommodate the construction of the I-270 spur connecting the interior of Washington DC to the I-495 beltway. Legend has it that Eisenhower, no fan of eminent domain, intervened on behalf of Burning Tree, leading to a notorious “bend” in I-270 that to this day has caused traffic issues for many a DC commuter.
Golfer in Chief: John F. Kennedy (35th President)
JFK was America’s first, truly good golf president. As a member of Harvard’s golf team, he adapted his swing to compensate for chronic back pain caused by a service injury during WWII (the boat on which he was stationed was struck by a Japanese destroyer). Despite a limited backswing (or perhaps because of it?), he was able to maintain a handicap in the single digits.
Kennedy was staunchly against Ike’s golfing habits, and managed to keep his own love for the game (among other things) a secret while running for office. JFK was apparently a very fun golf partner who was fond of gimmies and mulligans. Perhaps in the interest of pace of play (and to permit adequate time for presidential duties), he would re-tee a ball if there was the slightest chance of it being too far off the fairway to easily recover.
He was also known to talk aloud to himself, going as far as narrating his game like his friend, golf partner, and tv announcer Tom Niblet. Listen to Niblet share some of his fondest stories about golfing with JFK courtesy of Golf Digest.
Jackie once gifted John a “golf course” for his birthday. Dubbed, “The Pasture”, the course was exactly as its namesake suggested, offering little more than a large area of mowed grass. With the corners mowed down to two-inch “tee boxes”, the course featured rocky fairways, dirt holes, and its very own swamp. Thanks…I guess?
Golfer in Chief: Lyndon B. Johnson (36th President)
Considered by many to have been a political genius, LBJ was less adept at the game of golf than he was at making deals. While he enjoyed the game, he was rumored to take 300 or more swings on any 18-hole course. Seeking perfection in almost everything he did, golf was no exception; he liberally exercised executive mulligan privileges until he hit one just right.
Golf and Civil Rights
Knowing that the most powerful man in the world took 10 shots off the first tee is amusing enough, but LBJ’s history with golf is far more storied. As a politically minded person, Johnson found that the secluded 4+ hours out on the course was the perfect arena from which to do battle. Taking congressional opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out for solo rounds, LBJ was able to win over enough of them during 18 holes to get the bill passed.
Golfer in Chief: Gerald Ford (38th President)
Ford’s presidency is unique due to the fact that he’s the only President who wasn’t voted in, succeeding Nixon after the Watergate scandal led to his resignation. While #38’s rise to power isn’t why we’re here, there are some legendary golf stories buried in his first months in office.
As many of us can relate, Ford used golf as an escape from his day-to-day life and the stresses that accompanies being president (not something many of us can stake a claim to). A perfect example of this came on the day Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon. A controversial move to say the least, the newly-minted president made the announcement, then quickly retreated to nearby Burning Tree Golf Club to let off some steam.
A Legendary Foursome
Three days later on September 11th, 1974, he would travel south to lead inductions at the World Golf Hall of Fame. Although Ford might not have been the best golfing president, he certainly kept some of the best company, as during that trip he would play a round at Pinehurst with some of the greatest in the game.
Less than a week after making one of the most hotly-contested decisions in modern presidential history, Gerald Ford got to play with Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. If that wasn’t enough, the legendary Ben Hogan gifted the president a custom driver, which Ford hit perfectly on his first tee shot. If that’s not a golf fairytale, I don’t know what is.
Ford continued to use golf as an escape even after leaving office. Shirking his post-presidential duties, in 1981 he chose to play a round at Doral Country Club with Arnold Palmer instead of attending the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan–our next golfing president.
Golfer in Chief: Ronald Reagan (40th President)
Over the course of his presidency, Ronald Reagan had some scary encounters with gunmen. Most notably, on March 30, 1981 when John Hinkley Jr. shot the president outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. More relevant to this article, however, is the lesser-known story of the gunman who took over Augusta National Golf Club.
Still in his first term as president, Reagan was in Georgia playing a round at ANGC when an armed gunman drove through the country club’s front gate and took hostages in the clubhouse. Demanding an audience with the president, Charles Harris held pro-shop employees and one of the club’s pros at gunpoint.
Bad Cell Reception
The sitting president attempted to phone the clubhouse from an early cellphone, but because of the limited technology of the time (this was 1983, so the gargantuan phone must have needed its own golf cart) the call was interrupted. This enraged the already agitated Harris, who ripped the phone out of the wall as the Secret Service whisked Reagan into the presidential limousine and off the grounds of Augusta, proving that a crazy person with a gun is the only thing capable of ending a round at ANGC prematurely.
Seeing the president driving away, Harris soon gave up his futile attempt, and negotiated his surrender. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, and Ronald Reagan returned to Augusta the next morning to finish his round. Now that’s commitment.
Golfer in Chief: George H.W. Bush (41st President)
Bush’s lineage is intertwined with golf history. His grandfather was George Herbert Walker, the founder of the Walker Cup Match, and president of the USGA in 1920. Bush’s father was a scratch golfer who played frequently with Eisenhower; H.W. would credit these matches for igniting his keenness for politics.
Though Bush Sr. was just an average golfer among the presidents (he had a very respectable 11 handicap), he certainly may have been the fastest. Referring to his pace as “cart polo”, it was H.W.’s father who instilled in him the drive to play as quickly as possible.
No Practice Swings
H.W. expressed his pace-of-play philosophy in Don Van Natta’s First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters, from Taft to Bush:
“It isn’t a race to finish fast. It is just that the game should not be drawn out and other players should not be inconvenienced by some high handicap guy like me plumb-bobbing his putt and taking five practice swings on every shot.”
Non-partisan advice from a president that every golfer should take to heart.
Golfer in Chief: Bill Clinton (42nd President)
Clinton isn’t the best, worst or even the most interesting golfer on this list, but he loved the game. Playing as an escape from his fast-paced life, he relished the solitude and patience of a round of golf. While he played some notable rounds in his life (including a hotly-contested round with Tiger Woods, and a round with Michael Jordan where the basketball legend’s prowess for trash talk was on full display), a simple story told by Don Van Natta stands out.
Battling the Elements
While in office, Clinton once played a full round on the Army Navy Country Club by himself in the pouring rain. That’s a prime illustration for the love of the game. The power and allure of golf summed up in one defiant act by a sitting president. Hat’s off to you, Mr. President!
Keep on Golfing in the Free World
Doing what is arguably one of the hardest jobs on Earth can take its toll on anyone. Eisenhower called the Office “The Man Killer”, and worked to modernize our view of the Presidency. Ever since, presidents have sought solace on the golf course for some well deserved respite.
No matter your politics, we can all agree that golf is an escape for anyone who needs to step away from their desk, take in the fresh air, and return refreshed and renewed to continue the arduous job. What’s your favorite presidential golfing moment?