As world events swirl around him, the president finds time to golf. Not even foreign threats of war can keep him from hitting the links.
That duffer in chief was Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. From 1913 to 1919, Wilson played nearly 1,200 rounds of golf — more than any U.S. president in history. Beating that record will be a challenge even for President Trump, a serial golfer who a new book alleges is also a serial cheater.
Wilson golfed no matter what the weather. He golfed in snowstorms with golf balls that were painted red so his caddie could find them. “Secret Service men following him are not over enthusiastic about winter golf,” United Press reported.
He golfed in summer rains. He wasn’t deterred after burning his left hand by grabbing the hot exhaust pipe of the fighter tank Brittanica during a demonstration ride on the White House grounds. Within three weeks, Wilson had “developed into a professional one-handed player and can be seen on the links” almost every day, one newspaper said.
Wilson saw golf as a diversion from the long, high-pressure days of his job. “Each stroke requires your whole attention and seems the most important thing in life,” he said.
Wilson usually played at local courses with the White House physician, Cary T. Grayson, who had recommended the exercise. They generally played nine holes during the week and 18 on weekends.
Golf even led Wilson to romance. In the spring of 1915, the president and Grayson rushed back to the White House in wet clothes and muddy shoes after their game was cut short by a rainstorm. Wilson turned a corner and ran into a visitor, the widow Edith Bolling Galt.
“We met face to face,” she later recalled. “The two gentleman, I am sorry to say,” weren’t “well-attired. Their golf suits, as I found out later, were made by a cheap tailor the President had used for years.” Despite Wilson’s outfit, Galt and the president had an immediate attraction. Wilson’s wife had died a year before. That December the 59-year-old president married 43-year-old Galt. Wilson began golfing with his new wife, who reportedly was the better player.
Even with his frequent games, Wilson was a terrible golfer, partly because of a vision problem. When playing 18 holes, “seldom did his score rise above 100 because upon reaching three digits he was inclined to pack up his clubs and quit,” Scott Berg wrote in his book “Wilson.”
The president’s “got a three-quarter swing. He would play better if his swing was a little fuller,” Wilson’s 11-year-old caddie at the Myopia Hunt Golf Club in Magnolia, Mass. said in a newspaper interview. Wilson also putts too fast, the kid caddie said, but “his direction on drives is quite good.”
Hardly anything could keep Wilson away from the golf course. On April 2, 1917, he prepared an evening speech to a joint session of Congress seeking to declare war on Germany in World War I. But first he golfed with Mrs. Wilson that morning. At the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919, Wilson found time to sneak off to the links at Versailles.
Wilson continued his nearly daily golf until October of that year, when he suffered a massive stroke. He remained in office, but his golfing days were over.
Wilson wasn’t the first president to golf. His predecessor, 300-plus-pound William Howard Taft, helped to popularize the game in America. Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, also often hit the links. Harding, dressed in knickers, told reporters at one news conference: “Take it easy on me, boys. I want to get out to play some golf.”
The most prolific presidential golfer next to Wilson was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played over 800 rounds. Ike even had a putting green installed at the White House. President Bill Clinton also was an active golfer.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s golfing was targeted by Republican candidate Trump, who tweeted: “Can you believe that, with all the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf.” Trump told a rally that, if elected, “I’m going to be working for you. I’m not going to have time to play golf.”
In his first two years, Trump has visited his golf courses more than 150 times, according to the Associated Press. That compares with 306 golf outings by Obama in eight years. Trump is rated one of the best presidential golfers in history, but the honesty of his scores has been challenged in a new book, “Trump, Commander In Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump,” by Rick Reilly. “To say ‘Donald Trump’ cheats’ is like saying “Michael Phelps swims,’ ” Reilly asserted. “He cheats at the highest level.” Trump has called Reilly a “very dishonest writer.”
Nobody accused Wilson of cheating at golf. In early 1920, when Wilson began to take his first auto rides since his stroke had confined him to the White House, the Washington Examiner reported: “He expressed a yearning to again play golf, his favorite pastime.”
Ronald G. Shafer is a duffer golfer in Williamsburg, Va., and the author of “The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Presidential Campaign Of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.“
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