Golf & Presidents: The Toxic Combination

Current pres

“If I had my way, no man guilty of golf would be eligible to hold any office of trust or profit in these United States.”   -H.L. Mencken

Chances are, someone you know will spend time this Labor Day weekend playing golf. Chances are even better that President Obama will, too.

There’s been much talk in recent weeks about the Chief Executive’s passion for the game. He likes playing golf; he really, really, really likes it. (So too, for that matter, does House Speaker John Boehner, who’s also crazy about the game.)

Guarding Tess“Didn’t you guard Ford or Agnew? All they ever did was play golf … which was a blessing for the country.”  -Shirley MacLaine as a widowed First Lady to her Secret Service agent while playing golf in the 1994 movie Guarding Tess

Whether or not it’s good for the president to spend so much time on the fairways and greens is your call. But it reminds us that golf and the presidency have had a rocky relationship for well over 100 years now. So it’s worth spending a few minutes to see what it is about the game that gets so many people riled up, and to revisit what some of our Golfers-In-Chief have said about it, too.

teddy“It would seem incredible that anyone would care one way or the other about your playing golf, but I have received hundreds of letters protesting it. I myself play tennis, but that game is a little more familiar; besides, you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis, I am careful about that; photographs of me on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.”  –Theodore Roosevelt writing to presidential candidate William Howard Taft, 1908

Historians call Teddy Roosevelt the first true 20th Century president. He “got” the emerging mass media of his day, and played it to his advantage. The man had a love affair with the camera. There are countless pictures of Teddy holding rifles, riding horses, even posing beside wild animals he killed on safari. But Teddy playing golf? Not a single one.

Taft-Golf“Golf is in the interest of good health and good manners.”  -William Howard Taft

Maybe so; but at +300 pounds, Taft was the fattest president we’ve ever had; so much for the “good health” argument. Not only did he ignore Teddy’s advice … he even encouraged newspapers to photograph him playing it. Which may explain why his one term in office ended with a re-election defeat.

Wilson“Golf is a game in which one endeavors to put a small ball into an even smaller hole with implements ill-adapted for the purpose.”   –Woodrow Wilson

If America had a champion golf-loving president, the man who defeated Taft was it. Wilson played every chance he could … and secretly was none too happy that his second wife Edith was widely considered a better golfer than he was.

Harding“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” –Warren Harding

There are no famous Harding quotes about golf. He played twice every week, and played very fast, too. He also played a lot of poker, drank a lot of whiskey, and reportedly impregnated his mistress in an Oval Office closet, which makes it easy to see why historians rate him among the worst of all presidents. Still, he does have the distinction of being the first president to have a golf course named after him; interpret that any way you like.

Coolidge“I did not see the sense in chasing a little white ball around a field.” -Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge was the original Mr. Happy Fun Guy. He golfed occasionally, but didn’t seem to enjoy it. Then again, he didn’t seem to enjoy much of anything else, either. Paradoxically, he loved posing in outlandish headgear, such as this Indian headdress. (Pictures like this, by the way, made JFK adopt his ironclad rule of no photos in hats, which ruined America’s hat industry.)

Hoover“Be patient and calm; no one can catch fish in anger.”  -Herbert Hoover

Hoover was one of the handful of presidents who never golfed. He fished. And he created an idiotic game called Hoover-Ball, where grown men tossed a 6-pound ball back and forth to one another. Mercifully, it faded into obscurity — along with his presidential legacy.

FDR stamps“Remember you are just an extra in everyone else’s play.” -Franklin Roosevelt.

FDR fell in love with golf as a 12-year-old, clearing a patch of land on the family’s Hyde Park estate to make room for a nine-hole course. Polio prevented him from playing the game for most of his adult life; so he collected stamps. But he never lost his passion for golf and always kept a cigarette lighter in the shape of a golf ball on his desk in the Oval Office.

“I’ve never played golf in my life.” – Harry TrumanTruman

Another non-golfer. Still, you’ve got to admire a president with the guts to wear ridiculously loud shirts when he was vacationing in Key West, Florida. And he could pull it off, too!

Ike“I suggest you take up golf which, after all, is the best game of all of them.” -Dwight Eisenhower in a 1965 letter to his grandson David (for whom Camp David is named)

Ike’s name was synonymous with golfing in the 1950s. So much so that many Baby Boomers later rebelled against the game during the 60s Counter-Culture movement.

JFK“He (John F. Kennedy) could hit it a ton … but often had no idea where it was going.” -JFK friend Ben Bradlee

JFK loved the game, was good at it and played often. But he was mindful of Teddy Roosevelt’s political advice (“Golf is fatal”) and tried to shy away from cameras when he played.

President Lyndon Johnson Playing Golf with Dwight D. Eisenhower“One lesson you better learn if you want to be in politics is that you never go out on a golf course and beat the President.”   -Lyndon Johnson

LBJ played golf, but not out of any love for the game. Like everything else in his life, it was a means to an end. If he needed to spend time with congressional leaders on the golf course to get legislation passed, then he did.

Nixon“By the time you get dressed, drive out there, play 18 holes and come home, you’ve blown seven hours. There are better things you can do with your time.”  -Richard Nixon

Nixon was much the same as LBJ.  He played golf because that was what a successful man of his era was expected to do. But he was stiffly formal  (who plays golf in a suit anyway?) and never truly got into it.

Ford“I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.”  -Gerald R. Ford

Oh dear; what can you say?

carter“Jimmy never was much of a golfer.”   – Carter presidential spokesman

Yet another non-golfing president. Carter jogged instead, which was highly popular in the late 1970s, and then watched his popularity evaporate amid double digit inflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Reagan“My golf-loving friend Bob Hope asked me what my handicap was. So I told him – the Congress.”   -Ronald Reagan

Reagan became a good golfer during his Hollywood days. Unlike most prior presidents, he played less and less golf as his presidency progressed. Still, he always played a New Year’s Eve round in California every year.


“The problem with golf is that I have to deal with a humiliation factor.”  -George W. Bush

Bushes I and II both golfed.  And fished. And pitched horseshoes.  And … well, they were hyper sportsmen.


Clinton“Golf is like life in a lot of ways. All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted.” – Bill Clinton

I’ll resist the temptation to make the obvious Monica Lewinsky scandal comparison, and let Mr. Clinton’s words speak for themselves.

So here’s the bottom line on how Americans feel about their president playing golf. If the nation is at peace and the economy is good (think Eisenhower and Clinton), they don’t mind. When times are hard, they’re openly hostile toward it (think Ford). And when there’s an uneasy feeling that things aren’t moving in the right direction, they would rather see the president on the job in the Oval Office, not out on the links.

Note to White House media advisers: Teddy Roosevelt’s warning “Golf is fatal” still holds true 106 years later.

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