If you put the men who've occupied the White House over the last century or so all in one room – Democrats, Republicans, Northeners, Southerners, five-star generals, Vietnam protesters – they might not agree on much. But actually, they have acres of common ground – lush, green, common ground.
It makes perfect sense to Rand Jerris, a historian with the United States Golf Association, who says 16 of the last 19 presidents, starting with William Howard Taft, played golf.
"What it's like on a golf course early in the morning as the sun's coming up and the first rays of sunlight are casting these beautiful shadows across the golf course, it just removes you from the stress and the intensity," he said.
For President Taft, it was exercise even he could do at 350 pounds. "If he put the ball where he could see it, he couldn't play it, too far out. If he put the ball where he could play it, he couldn't see it!" Jerris laughed.
No president played more than Woodrow Wilson: six days a week, year-round. "The Secret Service painted golf balls red for him, so that Wilson could go up and play golf in the winter," Jerris said.
This preferred way to relax for presidents seeking a break from the public's preying eyes also presents a risk: an unvarnished look at them, said correspondent Jim Axelrod.
"The Scots have a great shorthand for that, as the Scots almost always do: 'Golf undresses a man,'" said Michael Bamberger, a senior writer at Golf Magazine. "Do they play by the rules? Is there an element of grace for their opponents and playing partners? Do they know what they're doing?"
LBJ's legislative persistence was reflected in the way he just kept swinging – up to 300 times a round. Nixon's social discomfort meant trouble-making conversation with his playing partners. Jerry Ford was a stickler for the rules; Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, not so much.
Axelrod asked, "Do you think you can tell something about the way someone would govern based on the way they behave on the golf course?"
"Any governor governs in accordance with how his or her mind works," Bamberger said. "And that's the starting point, is what's in your head."
"And the way somebody plays golf is a very transparent look at what's in someone's head?"
"Yeah, I would definitely agree with that."
Golf always seemed to be in the head of Dwight Eisenhower, who was so golf-crazy he often wore his spikes from the residence to the Oval Office, where he would dictate letters while walking around with an 8 iron in his hands.
But the 800 rounds he played while in office handed opponents a pointed line of criticism … which may help explain why JFK kept his graceful swing to home movies, and out of the range of news photographers.
… a lesson George W. Bush learned the hard way after one of the more awkward intersections of golf and the presidency.
"I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now, watch this drive!"
Golf continues to be a go-to line of attack in our present-day presidential politics.
Just as Donald Trump bashed Barack Obama for playing too much golf ("I'm gonna be working for you," he said during a 2016 campaign stop in Ashburn, Va. "I'm not gonna have time to go play golf"), Joe Biden is attacking Mr. Trump for teeing it up while COVID deaths climb during this one.
"The image of them playing golf constantly, I think, is a killer," said Cornell Belcher, a political strategist who teaches at Harvard. "I don't think it's intrinsic to the sport itself that they get punished for. They're more being punished because they seem to be paying more attention to playing golf than running the country."
But it's punishment many presidents have been willing to risk. A collection of presidential artifacts may be the best understanding of why. Axelrod said, perusing the golf shoes of Presidents Eisenhower and Ford, "This could be anybody's garage sale."
It's the pull this game has on the members of a most exclusive club, who – for a few hours at a time – were just trying to be regular guys.
"So, what golf tells us about presidents is that, at the end of the day, they're human beings," said Axelrod.
"And they're allowed to be human beings on the golf course," Jerris replied, "probably more than any other place in their life."
For more info:
- Rand Jerris, United States Golf Association
- Thanks to the USGA Golf Museum, Liberty Corner, N.J.
- Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Golf Magazine
- Cornell Belcher, Harvard University
Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Joseph Frandino. Illustrations: Mitch Butler.