As a longtime Houstonian, I got to see George Herbert Walker Bush a lot – along with thousands of others. That usually came at sporting events, whether he was throwing out the first pitch at an Astros game, calling the coin toss at a Texans game as an honorary captain or attending The Houston Open every spring.
While Bush, who lived in Kennebunkport, Maine in the summertime and the Bayou City the rest of the year, was probably Houston's most prominent sports fan, golf obviously held a special place in his heart. Before a form of Parkinson's disease forced him to quit playing, he was an intense competitor who loved to play fast.
"You put your track shoes on when you’re playing with him,” Hale Irwin once said of Bush, who was also widely known as "41," differentiating him from his son, George W. Bush, who served as the country's 43rd president.
Bush's golf legacy went back generations. His maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, once served as the president of the USGA (1920). The Walker Cup, a Ryder Cup style event for amateurs, is named for him.
Bush's father, Prescott Bush, was also a former USGA president (1935) and an exceptional player who introduced the game to his son. He taught his son well apparently. The former president won the same club championship his father won multiple times, at Cape Arundel in 1947. The 41st president, by the way, passed along his love for the game to "43," too.
As the tributes poured in over the weekend for Bush, who died last Friday at the age of 94, I couldn't help but flash back to my own memories of seeing him around town and at golf events around the world. He gave pep talks to Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams and often played in pro-ams, most notably the 1995 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and was a fixture at the Houston Open.
His group that year at the Hope included none other than then President Bill Clinton and former President Gerald Ford. They were followed by some 20,000 fans. It was an unnerving round for all them, including Bush, who hit a couple of spectators with errant shots. And, of course, the pace (6 hours) was a little slower than he liked.
I remember seeing him at the Houston Open almost every year, whether it was at the Tournament Course at The Woodlands (known then as the TPC at The Woodlands) or later at the Golf Club of Houston. It wasn't uncommon to see him out on the course, Secret Service in tow, greeting fans and players. He clearly enjoyed being out there. I recall on at least one occasion he presented the trophy to the winner, that coming in 2014 when Australian Matt Jones won the event.
Bush's greatest legacy in golf, though, undoubtedly came off the course, where he promoted not only the growth of the game, but all the good that comes from it.
He was The First Tee's Honorary Chairman when that organization was founded in 1997, but his involvement was more than honorary. He helped any way he could to help the organization grow, writing letters, making calls and attending openings of facilities, including The First Tee of Greater Houston, one of the largest in the country. His efforts are a big reason The First Tee has touched millions of youngsters, who not only learned the game, but learned lessons through The First Tee's "nine core values."
Bush was also an honorary member of the PGA of America and received that group's Distinguished Service Award in 1997. He was honorary chair of the USGA Museum and Archives President’s council. He won the USGA's highest honor, the Bob Jones Award in 2008, and in 2009, he received the PGA Tour's Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, Bush was inducted into the World Golf of Fame. And earlier this year, the American Society of Golf Course Architects, when they met in the Houston area for their annual meeting, recognized him with their highest honor, the Donald Ross Award.
Unfortunately, he wasn't able to attend the dinner that honored him with the Ross Award. It was in that month that Bush was preceded by the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, whom he doted on for the entirety of their 72 years of marriage. But you can be sure of this, even in this difficult year, that honor wasn't lost on him, and he never took the game or those who played it for granted.