The Elbert Files: Teeing it up with presidents
Friday, July 04, 2014 6:00 AM
It’s Independence Day. Happy July 4!
Two-hundred-thirty-eight years ago, our forefathers declared independence from Great Britain, and 133 years later, William Howard Taft took a putter in hand and effectively declared golf the official sport of presidents. Every president since, with three exceptions – Hoover, Truman and Carter - has played golf.
I’ve been thinking about golf and presidents in the wake of recent criticism that President Obama, who rarely plays more than once a week, plays too much.
So let’s tee it up with some powerful people today and see what we can learn.
The first president to witness a game of golf was Ulysses Grant, according to “Presidential Lies; The Illustrated History of White House Golf” by Shepherd Campbell and Peter Landau.
Grant took a world tour after leaving office and happened to witness a game of golf outside London in 1877. “That looks like good exercise, but what’s the little white ball for?” he is said to have asked.
Golf arrived in America 11 years later. But not until Taft took office in 1909 was the first presidential game played. By then, Taft had been playing for several years, despite warnings from his mentor and predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, who found the game excruciatingly slow and dull.
Author Doris Kearns Goodwin says Roosevelt advised Taft not to be photographed on the links because golf was “a rich man’s game.”
Similar advice was offered to other presidents but was largely ignored.
One exception was John F. Kennedy, who was sensitive to widespread criticism that his immediate predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, played too much golf. JFK was said to enjoy the game as much as Ike and was a better player – capable of 275-yard drives – but as president, Kennedy dialed back the amount of time he spent on the links.
Woodrow Wilson, who
defeated Taft in 1912, had no such concerns. Wilson played more golf than any
president, an estimated 1,200 rounds, according to the new biography
"Wilson" by A. Scott Berg. That’s roughly a round of golf every other day, not counting the 16 months at the end when Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke.
When Wilson entered office, he played every day except Sundays according to “First Off The Tee,” another book about presidential golf by Don Van Natta Jr.
“Seldom did his score rise above 100, because upon reaching three digits, he was inclined to pack up his clubs and quit,” Berg wrote, although one score of 146 for 18 holes was reported.
Berg wrote that Wilson “liked to play on less exclusive courses around Washington” and “was extremely selective about those in his party, as he forbade any talk of business and never played a second time with anyone who violated the rule.”
Wilson often played with his personal physician, who recommended golf as a health aid for lowering presidential hypertension. He was such a fanatic that he even found time and occasion to play while attending the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, according to Berg.
While Wilson may not have scored well, the worst presidential golfer was Calvin Coolidge, whose “pronounced lack of ability was a source of national merriment” and was even “chided by the press for not playing more often,” according to Van Natta. During one round in 1923, Coolidge reportedly took 11 strokes to reach a par-3 green.
Not counting Franklin Roosevelt, who governed from a wheelchair, Van Natta rated Kennedy as the best presidential golfer.
Both FDR and JFK learned the game at young ages and both were excellent golfers during their early careers, according to Van Natta.
But it was Roosevelt, who learned the game in 1899 at the age of 17, who was the true “natural.” According to Van Natta, FDR in his day would easily have bested any of our 14 other presidential golfers.
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