My advice to the middle-aged and older men, who have never played golf, is to take it up.
– President W.H. Taft
Legendary Georgia newspaperman Lewis Grizzard once humorously labeled golf the favorite sport of insurance salesmen and Methodist preachers.
He might have also added U.S. presidents.
As the golf world turns its attention to Augusta this week, we might ask ourselves why the leaders of the most powerful, most successful, most technologically sophisticated nation in the world favor such a royal and ancient pastime.
The answer might be simple. Since the days of William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding, our nation’s chief executives have gone to golf to relieve stress and build camaraderie.
Dwight Eisenhower, an Augusta favorite, was known for his love of the game. Ronald Reagan, both Bushes and Bill Clinton saw its benefits. Even Richard Nixon, with Watergate looming, allowed his friends to build a three-hole course near his home to escape the grind.
President Obama, a man whose educational and social background does not favor most golf stereotypes, actually plays so much that it irks his critics.
Since the turn of the previous century, only three presidents – Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter – have avoided the desire to grip it and rip it. Party affiliation seems to have no influence on White House golf, and one could make a case that Democrats do more with the sport than Republicans.
Most consider John F. Kennedy the best White House golfer, and video of the 35th president backs that up, showing JFK swinging his club with a fluid grace and only the slightest of hitches from his notoriously bad back.
Another Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, is believed to hold the record for most rounds of golf while serving in the White House, although he had an excuse. His doctor told him to play for his health, and Wilson did so, even going out in the dead of winter to knock around balls, which the Secret Service had painted red (some say black) so he could find them.
Such practice did not make perfect, confided Erick Montgomery, a Wilson scholar and director of Historic Augusta, which maintains his boyhood home.
“He wasn’t much good at it, his wife often beating him,” Montgomery said.
Polio might have limited Franklin Roosevelt in athletics by the time he became president, but he was quite the golfer in his youth, winning a Campobello Club championship.
Even Lyndon Johnson, whose presidential library last week could find only one image of the big Texan swinging a driver, could not escape golf’s grasp. According to accounts in the Texas Christian University library, Johnson took to the sport enthusiastically when he realized he could use it to lobby allies and enemies.
It did not matter that he was terrible with a swing that an aide said “looked like he was trying to kill a rattlesnake.”
He didn’t care. Getting out on the golf course gave him the chance to do two of his favorite things – walk and talk, i.e., persuade.
“I don’t have A handicap,” Johnson said good-naturedly. “I’m ALL handicap.”
It’s hard to argue with a man who can leverage a weakness into a strength, particularly on a golf course, and particularly when he’s president.