Barack Obama isn't the first U.S. President to enjoy a game of golf in his spare time.  (Getty Images) Presidents George Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton were all avid golfers during their time in the White House. (Getty Images) Arnold Palmer visited Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969.  (Getty Images) President George W. Bush greeted Tiger Woods during the Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village. (Getty Images) Donald Trump is the first president to not only play golf but have a golf course and resort empire.  (Getty Images) Byron Nelson, President Dwight Eisenhower, Ben Hogan, and Clifford Roberts at Augusta National Golf Club in April 1953 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images) (Getty Images) Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, all avid golfers, attend the 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National.  (Getty Images)

Commanders in golf: A guide to the U.S. Presidents and their games



President Barack Obama took considerable heat for playing golf. But sniping at Chief Executives for hitting the course has long been a sport in itself.

Consider this from H.L. Mencken: "If I had my way, no man guilty of golf would be eligible to hold any office of trust or profit under these United States." You can tell a lot about a president's popularity by the way his golf outings are perceived.

While the rounds of Bill Clinton were seen as a healthy respite from the stresses of the Oval Office, those of Obama seemed to fall under greater scrutiny. Maybe it's just the times. Or the man. Or the swing.

On the course in an era of prosperity, Clinton lived large, puffing cigars, kicking back in his cart, gripping-and-ripping from his heels and reloading on wild shots. But Obama doesn't seem to have as much fun in his cargo shorts. He hunches over the golf cart steering wheel, manages the course and takes an abbreviated, chicken-wing swipe.

Little wonder that in a 2005 GolfDigest.com survey asking readers, "If you could have played golf with any president, who would it be?" Clinton (30 percent) was the winner, followed by John Kennedy (24 percent) and George W. Bush (14 percent).

The president best known for his golf addiction was Dwight Eisenhower, and many are under the impression that he was the first Chief Executive to play. But he just took it to another level, amassing approximately 800 rounds in his eight years in office.

The first president to play was William Howard Taft. And only three presidents since -- Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter -- didn't. Truman, however, did win over golfers with this spirited defense of Eisenhower: "To criticize the president because he plays a game of golf is unfair and picayunish. He has the same right to relax from the heavy burdens of office as any man."

In chronological order, here's a brief look at each of the presidential golfers -- their games and their contributions to the sport.

William Taft (1909-13): was a 20 handicap and -- to the chagrin of his playing companions -- was said to always play out every hole. While in office, Taft celebrated the completion of the Connecticut Avenue bridge over Rock Creek Park because it allowed him quicker access to the Chevy Chase Club.

Woodrow Wilson (1913-21): Under orders of his doctor and playing partner Dr. Cary Grayson, Wilson played as much as possible, logging more than 1,000 rounds while in office. He even had balls painted black so he could play in the snow. But all that golf never helped Wilson improve as he rarely broke 100. Arteriosclerosis limited his game along with two minor strokes, which he suffered before entering office.

Warren G. Harding (1921-23): Played twice a week, but wasn't very good, often scoring in triple digits. His primary legacy to the game: The outstanding TPC Harding Park golf course in San Francisco, which was named after him.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-29): With golf's popularity surging during his tenure, Coolidge played out of obligation and his game reflected it as he usually required double-digit shots on each hole. When successor Herbert Hoover moved into the White House, the only thing said to be left behind were Coolidge's bag of clubs.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45): Before he contracted polio at age 39, Roosevelt was an avid and accomplished golfer. While in college, Roosevelt was the club champion at Campobello Island Golf Club in New Brunswick, Canada, near his family's summer estate. His greatest legacy to the game was the funding of public-works projects, which included dozens of municipal golf courses including Bethpage State Park in New York and FDR Golf Club in Philadelphia.


In photos: A history of U.S. Presidents on the golf course


Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961): Though he was often criticized for it, his obsession with the sport and his friendship with icon Arnold Palmer help lift golf to new levels of popularity. During his tenure, the number of golfers in America more than doubled. As president, Ike took 29 trips to Augusta, where he was a member. When in D.C., he played nearly every Wednesday at Burning Tree Club. He also installed a putting green on the White House lawn. An athlete good enough to play linebacker at Army, Eisenhower nevertheless struggled with the game he loved, playing to a handicap in the mid-teens.

John Kennedy (1961-63): A bad back and Addison's disease prevented Kennedy from reaching his enormous potential as a golfer. Video clips reveal a powerful, fluid swing. As a Democrat and an aristocrat, Kennedy was particularly careful to keep his outings on the down low as golf was viewed as a sport for the privileged. There was no better place to do this than at Burning Tree, the most private of clubs in the Washington area, where Kennedy was said to skip around the course, hardly ever playing a round of 18 or even nine holes.

Playing at Cypress Point before he was elected in 1960, Kennedy nearly made a hole-in-one at the famed 16th hole ocean hole, hitting a five-iron that rattled the flagstick and dropped inches from the cup. According to one of his playing partners, Kennedy said, "You're yelling for that damn ball to go in, and I'm seeing a promising political career coming to an end. If that ball had gone in, the word would be out that another golfer was trying to get to the White House."

Lyndon Johnson (1963-69): LBJ played with an ulterior motive after realizing golf was the perfect activity for political negotiations. The votes Johnson needed to pass the Civil Right Act of 1964 were secured on the golf course. Johnson's swing was said to look like he was killing a rattlesnake, and he was no stickler for the rules, as he hit as many shots as it took get one that he liked.

Richard Nixon (1969-74): While serving as Vice President under Eisenhower, Nixon dutifully took up the game and became a solid player, once breaking 80 and playing to a 12 handicap. Even though he had a three-hole course built at his home in San Clemente, Calif., Nixon gave up golf while in his troubled second term.

Gerald Ford (1974-77): A few errant drives in pro-ams contributed to Ford's reputation as a klutz. But the former Michigan offensive lineman often broke 90 and was long enough off the tee to once out-drive Arnold Palmer and Gary Player on the first hole of an exhibition match at Pinehurst. He became the first president to join the USGA, doing so in a ceremony at the White House and was honorary chairman of the first Presidents Cup (1994).

Ronald Reagan (1981-89): President Reagan did not play much, but had a powerful swing. His most significant golf moment came when playing a round at Augusta Country Club and an armed man crashed the gates, took hostages and demanded to talk to Reagan. The man was soon apprehended. Reagan was one of six presidents -- from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush -- who took lessons from Max Elbin, the longtime pro at Burning Tree.

George H.W. Bush (1989-93): No president was born into a family with such rich golf tradition. His maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was president of the USGA and founded the Walker Cup. His father, Prescott Bush, also was a USGA president. It was for his dedication to the game -- not his playing ability as an 11-handicap -- that Bush was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Bush also was decades ahead of his time on the course, insisting on playing "speed golf." Any round that wasn't over in less than three hours was too long for the 41st President.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001): As in life, he often skirted the rules, but there was no denying his positive impact on the game, if for no other reason than he made it look like so much fun. Clinton re-installed the White House putting green that Richard Nixon had removed. His enduring legacy to the game is his role as host of the PGA Tour's Humana Challenge in Palm Springs. As president in 1995, Clinton joined George H.W. Bush, Bob Hope and Gerald Ford in a pro-am to comprise perhaps the most powerful foursome in golf history.

George W. Bush (2001-2009): Also an excellent athlete, but his dedication to the sport wasn't as pronounced as that of his father. He played to a 15-handicap before giving up golf at the outbreak of the Second Iraq War. After leaving office, he has returned to the sport, establishing the Warrior Open, which honors U.S. servicemen. And like his dad, Bush favors golf at a fast pace. "We're not out there throwing grass up in the air, testing the winds," Bush once said. "We like to bang away."

Barack Obama (2009-2017): He is the eighth left-hander in the White House but the first to play golf. Obama eschews the perks of the job -- and the chance to play the private clubs of the Washington area -- favoring military courses at Ft. Belvoir and Andrews Air Force base. He also invited Rory McIlroy to a White House dinner in 2012 when the Northern Irishman was first ranked no. 1 in the world.

Update


Donald Trump (2017-?) Perhaps not even Eisenhower was as passionate about golf as our current White House resident. Eisenhower, though a member at Augusta National, certainly wasn't as good. In fact, Trump might be the best golfer of all the chief execs, claiming a handicap under 3 with a self-taught swing that's remarkably consistent. Said Tiger Woods of Trump after playing a round with him at Trump International in Florida: "People don't realize he's that old, and he can rip it and hit it as far as he does." Of course, his golf involvement goes way beyond his on-course performance; Trump Golf owns or operates 17 golf courses, including four resorts: Turnberry and Trump International in Scotland, Doonbeg in Ireland, and Trump Doral in Miami.

Nov 17, 2014



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Kevin Dunleavy

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Kevin Dunleavy is a longtime resident of northern Virginia, a graduate of George Mason University, an award-winning reporter covering golf, colleges, and other sports for the Washington Examiner, and a single-digit handicap still seeking his elusive first hole-in-one. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KDunleavy.