When Presidents Play Golf

From Taft to Clinton to Obama, residents of the White House show their true personalities on the links

It's difficult to imagine President Obama getting so excited about a drive by John Boehner when they golf together this weekend that he suddenly shouts out, "Whoa, mama!" And the betting is against the president focusing so much on improving his swing that he doesn't notice that he has rubbed his arm bloody in the process.

(RELATED: Pictures of Presidents on the Golf Course)

If he did either, he'd simply be emulating some of his predecessors in office when they hit the links. Obama is the 17th president to golf since William McKinley made the first presidential putt in 1897. In the 114 years since, Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were the only nongolfing presidents.

All the others played the game, with varying degrees of success. And in doing so, they almost always attacked the course in a way that revealed their personalities. For some, it meant racing through a round; for others, venting frustration at bad shots; and for some, relishing  the chance to relax and take liberties with the rules.

But despite all the speculation this week, rarely has a president struck a major political deal while golfing. Now that Obama is set to play 18 holes with House Speaker John Boehner, Vice President Joe Biden, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, there has been speculation - silly in the view of White House aides - that, somehow, Obama and Boehner will resolve their budget disagreements down along the 17th fairway.

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The history of presidents and golf, though, suggests that Boehner may leave the course with a little more insight into Obama, the man.

Bill Clinton was one of the more enthusiastic players, providing nonstop and often loud commentary. And he never cared who heard him or knew he was golfing - quite a contrast with McKinley, who kept his outings secret because he feared the political stigma of playing a game invented by foreigners.

In his first year in office, Clinton could be heard by all when he exclaimed after a tee shot on the 10th hole on Martha's Vineyard, "Whoa, mama, stay up!" No stickler for the rules, he often dropped a fresh ball after an errant shot - something George H.W. Bush was also known to do.

Here, the contrast is with William Howard Taft, the first president to enthusiastically embrace the game. As told by the former curator of the Professional Golf Association Hall of Fame, Dick Stranahan, the rotund Taft once took 12 strokes to free his ball from a sand trap. Like every other president, Taft had partners who were not averse to sycophancy, and they suggested he record fewer strokes.

"He insisted on including each and every stroke in his score for the hole," Stranahan said in an interview while he was still at the Hall of Fame. To do otherwise would not have fit into Taft's view of the game as one that "affords the chance to play the man and act the gentleman."

Probably no one has ever played with more presidents than Arnold Palmer, and he has had the chance to discover that not all presidents shared Taft's view. In his biography, Palmer noted that both Dwight Eisenhower and the first President Bush always accepted when partners "gave" them putts. "Whether the ball was 2 inches or 4 feet from the cup, if you said, 'That's good, Mr. President,' to President Eisenhower, he wouldn't hesitate to slap the ball and pick it up, ready to move on."

But Gerald Ford would have nothing to do with that, Palmer learned. A man whose trademark in politics was working hard and being a nice guy, Ford was the same way on the golf course. "No president ever tried harder at the game than Gerald Ford,"  Palmer wrote, adding, "One indication of his passion is that if you tried to give him a putt, he would never take it but insist on trying to make it."

Palmer also saw the true personalities of Presidents Eisenhower and Richard Nixon emerge on the course. For Eisenhower, it was the dogged determination that had made him such a great war commander. Before one game, Palmer recalled, he told the president that his right elbow was "flying" away from his body during shots. "I counseled him to always try to keep his right elbow tucked 'as close to your body as possible' to generate more power and hit the ball straighter," Palmer recalled.

But Eisenhower was wearing a military-style belt with metal buckles. "Bless him, like the good soldier he was, in his determination to keep that right wing tucked as ordered, he'd actually rubbed the skin off his arm and was bleeding. When I pointed it out to him, he acted as if it were nothing but a scratch ..."

As for Nixon, golf seemed to accent the man's strangeness. He was not a good golfer but wanted to be, and he never could quite find the right things to say to his golfing partners. Palmer was once summoned to join Nixon in San Clemente. But it wasn't for golf. It was for a high-level strategy meeting on Vietnam at which Palmer was asked his advice on how to conduct the war.

And Palmer struggled to explain why Nixon suddenly gave up the game completely. "I liked Richard Nixon despite his quirks and apparent lack of warmth," said Palmer, adding, "I think his decision to abandon golf for political purposes revealed something fundamental about the dark side of his character, or maybe his deep social insecurities, that Mr. Nixon never permitted himself to examine."

Nixon clearly was the exception. Other presidents have been drawn to the game because it relaxed them and offered a diversion from the cares of office. Woodrow Wilson found golf essential during World War I, often taking to the links daily. Wilson even played in the snow, using black golf balls. Other presidents were known to place bets on shots - particularly Warren G. Harding, who trained his dog, Laddie Boy, to retrieve golf balls on the White House lawn.

George H.W. Bush always displayed his impatience and his patrician upbringing when he golfed. His aides called his particular game "aerobic golf" because he raced through each round, once setting the unchallenged presidential speed record of one hour, 51 minutes for 18 holes with a foursome. He was never heard shouting, "Whoa, mama." But when putts would fall short, he almost always exclaimed, "Power outage!" And it's hard to top what he said after one shot in 1989: "Oh, golly darn, get up there."

The senior Bush was but one of many presidents harshly criticized for taking up a game long considered the province of rich men. Mark Twain, recalling Abraham Lincoln, led the attack in his day. "Rail-splitting has produced an unparalleled president in Lincoln," Twain said. "But golf hasn't produced even a good A-1 congressman."

Perhaps that is why Obama has allowed very few pictures to be taken of him while golfing.       

But maybe Boehner will reveal what this president shouts after a good shot.

Image credit: J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

Presented by

George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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