“Let me tell you: if you have a passion for golf, it’s amazing how that bridges a lot of divides,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C). “If you can make a six-footer to help me beat my buddies, I’m going to have a different view of your politics at the end of the day.”
In Washington more than anywhere else, politics and golf have long been intertwined. Presidents have played it, some with a passion. Lobbyists have used it to cozy up to members of Congress. Members of Congress have used it to learn each other’s foibles. And all say the same thing: If the people who run things in Washington just played a little more golf together, wouldn’t the world be a better place? (Seriously. People really believe that.)
“Because politicians on both sides of the aisle, lots of them used to play golf socially together, it made the politics of Washington less contentious, because they were friends playing a game that requires you to maintain certain values,” said Deane Beman, a native Washingtonian, two-time U.S. Amateur champ and the commissioner of the PGA Tour from 1974 to 94. “The issues got contentious. But I don’t think the personal animosity that you see, the personal attacks that you see, were there. I believe golf had quite a role back then, because they left it behind and went to the golf course.”
Sand game says a lot
Franklin D. Roosevelt once won a bet that he could drive a golf ball 300 yards – in part because he waited until winter, then drove it on a frozen pond. Woodrow Wilson played with colored golf balls — some accounts say red, others black — in the winter, better for the Secret Service to track them down in the snow. Dwight D. Eisenhower played more than 100 rounds a year during his eight-year tenure as president. George H.W. Bush once played 18 holes in 1 hour 25 minutes. John F. Kennedy mowed a pasture at his Virginia estate into something of a makeshift golf course, with four par 9s.
There are, it seems, stories about nearly every president since the early 1900s and the game of golf. The most recent: On the morning of May 1, President Obama went to the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside the District. It was a bit chilly, with some drizzle, and Obama — who frequently plays 18 holes on Sunday mornings — quit at the turn. He wore his golf shoes as he walked across the White House lawn to the Oval Office — and to a tense meeting with officials from his administration, his national security team and the defense department. Two days earlier, Obama had approved an operation that would end in the death of Osama bin Laden.
“I was not surprised at all when I found out the president was given four options with bin Laden, and he picked the riskiest,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) “I played golf with him.”
How, then, might hunting down the world’s most wanted man and enjoying a casual round on Martha’s Vineyard — where Clyburn and Obama played during the president’s vacation last year — be at all related?
“The most intimidating thing for any amateur golfer is to be in a sand trap,” Clyburn said. “Professional golfers play sand traps without much thought. Amateur golfers, we’re terrified of sand traps. President Obama was in five or six sand traps when we played. He hit every one of them perfectly.
“It was just amazing to me. A lot of it has to do with his self-assuredness, trusting your swing. He did everything the way you’re supposed to. And I told him: When I heard about [the mission to kill bin Laden], I thought about him in a sand trap.”
There are grainy pictures of presidents throwing out the first pitch at Washington Senators games, and Obama and George W. Bush have done so for the Washington Nationals. Richard Nixon was such an ardent Redskins fan that there are stories that he drew up plays, and the most indelible images of Kennedy’s life with his family are of touch football games on Cape Cod.
But no sport touches as many presidents as golf. Congressional alone boasts five former presidents — Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge — as founding life members, though Hoover wasn’t a player. That puts him in odd company among presidents since the turn of the 20th century: Only Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter weren’t golfers, though not all who played were equally enamored of it. Wilson famously described golf as “an ineffectual attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with implements ill-adapted to the purpose,” a quote that endures in many iterations.
“Playing golf with America’s presidents is a great denominator,” said the late comedian Bob Hope, an avid golfer who played with several presidents. “How a president acts in a sand trap is a pretty good barometer of how he would respond if the hot line lit up — and some of their language proved it.”
Though Taft was the first avid presidential golfer — an odd one at that, weighing in the neighborhood of 350 pounds, with an awkward swing as a result — no president did for golf what Dwight D. Eisenhower did. Ike simply made it acceptable for the leader of the free world to not only play golf, but play it regularly.
“Being president’s never going to be a walk in the park,” said Beman, the former PGA Tour commissioner who played several rounds with Eisenhower, beginning as a teenager at Burning Tree Club, an all-male club in Bethesda. “But Eisenhower was confronted every day with sending not just a few, but thousands, of troops to their potential deaths, and being involved with the strategy and the tactics. I just don’t think the presidency was as intense on a day-to-day basis, and so he played plenty of golf.”
Eisenhower is one of two presidents to be inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame, and his personalized golf cart is on display at the hall in St. Augustine, Fla. The other: George H.W. Bush, who was inducted in May. Bush’s grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was a president of the USGA, and the Walker Cup — the amateur version of the Ryder Cup — is named for him. Bush learned the game from his father, Prescott, also a USGA president, and he got good enough that he won the club championship at the Cape Arundel Club — in the Bushes’ summer retreat town of Kennebunkport, Maine — in 1947.
No shot or skill defined Bush as a golfer more than the speed at which he played. “You put your track shoes on when you’re playing with him,” three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin once said. And that made Feb. 15, 1995, perhaps the most excruciating round Bush ever played.
“Fore!” was the first word Gerald Ford yelled that day, as his first tee shot headed straight into the gallery at Indian Wells Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif. Two of his playing partners, Bush and Bill Clinton, looked on, the only time three presidents — past and present — teed it up together. Accounts from the round, organized by a then-91-year-old Hope, largely poked fun at all three men.
“With golf balls flying every which way,” said the Post’s front-page story, “an outing that had been billed as historic turned out to be downright harrowing.”
Not to mention slow.
“If you’re playing behind them, you’re not going to ask the official to have them speed it up,” said two-time U.S. Open champ Curtis Strange, who played a few groups ahead. “It’s three presidents.”
By the end of the day, Clinton carded 92, Bush 93 and Ford 100. More notable: Bush sent a woman to the hospital after one of his shots ricocheted off a tree and into the bridge of her nose, one of two spectators Bush hit. Ford, too, nailed a man.
“They’re nervous playing with us,” said Strange, who once played nine holes with Clinton. “I’m not going to say Bill Clinton was [nervous] with me, but think about it. They’re in my office now. I don’t care if you’re the president or not. That can make you anxious.”
Fridays are normally fairly quiet days in Congress. Many members head home for the weekends, and the business of the week usually winds down. But if you need a rep or a Senator on a spring or summer Friday, try the first tee at Army Navy Country Club in Arlington.
“We could use more golf outings here in D.C.,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). “It’s so hard to get to know fellow members of the House or the Senate. Golf works. You’re dressed a little more casually. You’re walking. The flow of your conversation is a little broader. . . . You’re able to let down your hair a little bit and you get a sense of what tickles people’s funny bones.”
Neither Oscar Bland nor O.R. Luhring were particularly legendary members of Congress. Both were Republicans. Both were from Indiana. Bland served three terms, Luhring two. But they left an imprint on the town because in 1921, they dreamed up the idea for Congressional Country Club. They wanted a place “where politicians and businessmen could meet as peers, unconstrained by red tape,” according to the club’s Web site (a site that, too, lists Luhring’s surname as “Lubring,” perhaps a commentary on his place in American political history).
In the generations since Congressional opened in 1924, golf and politics have mixed across Washington. Tip O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski, two giants of the Democratic party over much of the 20th Century, regularly invited Republicans to play with them at Burning Tree. Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase – the first Washington-area course to stage the U.S. Open, back in 1921 – still hosts the First Tee Congressional Challenge, a Ryder Cup-style set of matches featuring 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats that began in 2002.
Saturday, Obama and Boehner will update the relationship. But politicians and those who play with them say the golf course is not the place to solve problems. It is the place to establish relationships — and perhaps a tenor — through which problems can be solved.
“When you’re actually out playing golf with members, they want to do what you want to do: They want to play golf,” said Tony Russo, a lobbyist at T-Mobile and Congressional member who was ranked by Golf Digest as the top player among “power brokers” in D.C. “We don’t sit there and talk issues the whole time. It’s a place to socialize and get to know people better, so later on you can go in and talk business when they’re focused on work.”
The focus, then, on the course becomes learning about their playing partners, and figuring out themselves.
“People that try to give you putts that are too long to give are suck-ups,” said Graham, the senior Senator from South Carolina. “People who constantly can’t add their score up are suspicious. It’s the little things over a four-hour period of time that you can find out. . . . I go from worrying about Pakistan to, ‘Why can’t I hit this ball?’ It doesn’t care what you are. It’s not Republican or Democrat.”
It is, though, very Washington.