Just the Sport for A Leader Most Driven

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Although far better known as a hoops man, President Obama seems to be morphing into a golf nut these days. He's hit the course five times since late April -- rushing out to the links on Sunday afternoon just 90 minutes after returning to the White House from his overseas trip. The wife and kids were still back in Paris; no time like the present to get in nine holes.

And so Obama joins a long, storied and sometimes comic tradition: He is the 15th of the past 18 presidents to play golf.

What's the deal? Why golf?

The attraction would seem simple. It's a great escape; the game demands such attention that nothing else matters. It's time spent with friends, an unhurried afternoon in loose clothing (shorts seem to be Obama's preference). Yet nothing is without deeper meaning where the presidency is concerned. The golfer in chief's approach to the game is subject to analysis in psychological and political contexts.

To some, Obama's frequent outings reflect a cool self-confidence. "Given all the things that are going on in the world and with the economy," says sports psychologist Bob Rotella, "you'd think he wouldn't be caught anywhere near the golf course . . . To some degree it says: 'I'm not going to worry about what people say about me. I'm going to do my job, and I'm going to play, too.' "

Obama's predecessor said he quit golfing just as the Iraqi insurgency began to escalate in August 2003. "I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf," George W. Bush told interviewers in 2008. "I think, you know, playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal."

Obama, who shoots in the mid-90s by most estimates, seems to be taking every opportunity to improve his game by hitting the courses at Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Belvoir. On Sunday, he enlisted Ben Finkenbinder, a White House press assistant, and Marvin Nicholson, his trip scheduler, who once caddied at Augusta National Golf Club, for the round.

Illinois state Sen. Terry Link, one of Obama's early golfing buddies, sees a direct connection between the president's calm, methodical approach to the game and his personality. "He has a competitiveness in him, no doubt about it. But he has a smart competitiveness in him. He does not get to where he's going to blow his cool," Link says. "He's going to have a calculated aggressiveness, and that's how his life is, too."

Obama, whose grandfather Stanley Dunham golfed, toyed with the game while in high school in Hawaii. He returned to it in 1997 as an Illinois state senator. He stank. But "he kept his head in the game to improve it," Link recalls. Hacking away, failing to get frustrated, taking lessons and practicing, Obama lowered his score. His playing is still erratic. His swing knocked his BlackBerry off his belt during one of the rounds he played while on vacation post-election in Hawaii.

Patience, persistence and the ability to self-critique -- qualities that also serve presidents well -- are crucial in golf. "What makes golfers so passionate about the game is something that non-golfers can't fathom: You never master it. There is always a way to get better through practice and repetition," says John Lyberger, the PGA pro at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. The club's history is entwined with the presidency: William Taft, Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were members.

"People's personalities come out through golf, which is why so much business gets conducted on the golf course," Lyberger continues. "You see how they act under pressure; you see what makes them upset or makes them happy. Ninety-nine percent of the time that's how the person is in real life."

Presidential recreation plays a role in overall image management. As a basketball guy and golfer, Obama is able to demonstrate versatility and broaden his constituency. It shows he's attracted to both fast-paced team play and a painstakingly slow individual endeavor. It also reflects his crossover appeal in terms of race and class.

And golf has a long history of providing opportunities for networking and access to power. Richard Nixon, as veep, so wanted to impress his golf-devoted boss, Dwight Eisenhower, that he took lessons at age 40, according to Don Van Natta Jr., a New York Timesman who wrote the presidential golf book "First Off the Tee."

Golf Digest recently put Obama eighth on its list of presidential golfers, below Bill Clinton and above Ronald Reagan. The best: JFK; the worst: Coolidge.

"I think golf can say a lot about the ability of a president to grasp a situation in a certain way," says Espen Uldal, a Copenhagen-based golf commentator. Around the world, "it's becoming a tradition: You check out the new man in the White House and his golf."

Rotella doesn't agree that golf necessarily reveals temperament. A surgeon who flings his clubs on the course may be perfectly collected in the operating room, he says.

Still, we'll hazard some comparisons.

-- Clinton: Garrulous on the course, hates to lose, stretches the rules. These traits were well-chronicled by Van Natta in a 2003 Sports Illustrated piece that gave birth to the term "Billigans" for the former president's unique do-over shots, traditionally known as mulligans.

-- Gerald Ford: Caricatured as the Chevy Chase of the links, clumsy, known for wild shots. But it should be noted that when Ford played in a 1995 Bob Hope tournament with Clinton and George H.W. Bush, both former presidents drew spectator blood with their errant drives. Despite his rep, Ford was ranked third by Golf Digest, after Eisenhower.

-- Bush 41: Capable, quick, thoughtful. "He may not be the greatest presidential golfer, but he may be the fastest. He's great to play golf with because he is fast. No fooling around," says sportswriting legend Dan Jenkins, a friend and golfing buddy of the former prez.

-- Bush 43: Unreflective, daring, cocky. He drew criticism early in his presidency for opining on serious world events from the greens. Referring to a suicide bombing in Israel while teeing up in August 2002 at Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush said, "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive."

So far, Obama's time on the golf course hasn't stirred any overt political sniping. Other presidents have golfed through crises. The danger may lie in working on his game.

Says Jenkins, who's seen a lot of golf in his time: "I certainly don't want my president to be a good golfer. It takes too much time and practice to be any good -- it's a very hard game to play consistently well. I think there are better things he could be doing."

Link, for his part, was amazed to hear yesterday that his friend Obama has been enjoying so much golf. "He gets out more than I do, and I've got a problem with that!" he said, chuckling. "He has a harder job than I do. I'm going to have a discussion with him."

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