Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush walk onto a golf course.
No, this isn’t a joke. One or all of these current or former presidents have been rumored to be planning appearances at this weekend's Ryder Cup tournament at Medinah Country Club. Team USA captain Davis Love III invited Obama to come to his hometown golf course.
Each of these presidents have been avid golfers -- as are most modern presidents. William Howard Taft was the first president to take up golf. The nation followed his example. During his four years on office, the number of golfers on public courses doubled. However, golf also caused Taft political problems. As Unitarian, he already had trouble with religious voters. Golfing on Sunday confirmed their opinion that he was a closet atheist. And it didn’t help the 300-pound Taft’s slothful image to be seen on the golf course instead of in the White House. Woodrow Wilson was a wet blanket in most affairs, but he enjoyed golf, as did Warren G. Harding, who invited Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen to the White House.
After that, golf went into a 30-year lull among president. From 1923 to 1953, only the one-term Herbert Hoover played. Franklin D. Roosevelt had golfed as a sporty young man at Harvard, but his paralysis prevented him from walking a course. Harry Truman disdained golf (he played poker in the clubhouse at Burning Tree Country Club), but Dwight D. Eisenhower was such a fanatic that his enemies called him the “Great Golfer in Washington,” and saw his time on the links as proof that he was a political and intellectual lightweight. He even invited his vice president, Richard M. Nixon, for a weekend of golf in Denver, inspiring Nixon to take up the game as a way to impress his boss. (Later, as president, Nixon cheated at golf by tossing his ball from the rough into the fairway.)
“The best thing about Eisenhower’s presidency,” English commentator Alistair Cooke wrote, “was his Jeffersonian conviction that there should be as little government and as much golf as possible.”
John F. Kennedy was the best presidential golfer -- he shot an 80 for 18 holes -- but when he was running to succeed Eisenhower, he didn’t want the public to know that he would also succeed Ike as the First Golfer. During the campaign, Kennedy was relieved when a potential hole-in-one stopped a few inches from the cup.
“If that ball had gone into that hole,” Kennedy told Fay with a sheepish smile, “in less than an hour the word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get into the White House.”
Kennedy beaned a Secret Service agent with a wayward drive, a problem shared by Gerald Ford, who hit a spectator while playing in a twosome with Bob Hope. This added to Ford’s reputation for clumsiness, so he joked, “I would like to deny all allegations by Bob Hope that during my last game of golf, I hit an eagle, a birdie, an elk and a moose.” After the presidency, Ford sponsored his own golf tournament, the Jerry Ford Invitational, to raise money for charity.
Carter preferred fishing, softball and running. Ronald Reagan developed a decent golf game in his Hollywood years, but only played once or twice a year as president, usually on New Year’s Eve. For the Bushes, golf was part of their aristocratic lineage. George Herbert Walker, grandfather and namesake of 41, founded the Walker Cup, an amateur competition between the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland. 41’s father, Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, was president of the United States Golf Association. W., though, gave up playing after ordering the invasion of Iraq, saying it sent the “wrong message” to military families.
Bill Clinton became pals with golfer Greg Norman. While staying at Norman’s house in Florida, he fell down a flight of stairs at 1:30 in the morning, tearing tendons in his knee, which forced him to undergo surgery and stop jogging. (Thankfully, for those who remember his shorts.) Norman later told Vanity Fair that the late-night accident had “nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky.”
Obama took up golf as a member of the Illinois State Senate, after learning that most legislative deals were made on Springfield courses, and often played with aptly-named colleague Terry Link. As president, he’s played about 100 rounds, nowhere close to Eisenhower’s 1,200 or Wilson’s 800. According to Links magazine, “Obama is very much the everyday golfer: With a homemade swing, he uses clubs that are several years old, plays primarily at public courses and wears plain, solid shirts and cargo shorts.”
This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.