Counts yeas and nays. Counts earmarked dollars and donated dollars. Counts favors and disses. Counts everything.
So golf, one of the most number-preoccupied of amateur sports, fits the town’s mind-set. It’s eminently quantifiable.
But Washington fiddles with numbers better than most towns, too, contorting budget lines into miasmas of spin and misdirection, calculating what’s up as if it were down and what’s down as if it were up. And so it goes on the golf course in Washington, a city consumed with the game this week because of the U.S. Open being played at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda and Saturday’s “golf summit” between House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama.
Members of Congress (and presidents, for that matter) get their own golfing math. The etiquette dictates that you look away when the distinguished gentleman or gentlewoman takes that do-over tee shot. “No need to mark that first one down!” That challenging three-foot putt? “Don’t worry about it! Pick it up. It’s a gimme.”
Deference prevails. After all, the consultants and the lobbyists and the influence-seekers are the pursuers in this town. The members are the pursued.
Except, that is, when your name is Tony Russo. The laws of nature dictate that Russo, the 42-year-old head lobbyist for T-Mobile, would be ever in pursuit. But it turns out he’s just as often the pursued, the man the powerful want to tee up with, and there’s a reason for that. It’s in the numbers. Add up the pars and the birdies, as Golf Digest did, and Russo comes out as the finest golfer in Washington’s political realm, a 300-yard-driving, chip-shot-precision-bombing, 15-foot-putt-sinking marvel.
When you’re so good that you can be counted on to reliably shoot between two-over and two-under par, you don’t have to defer. People want to play with you. They might learn something, or they hope that some of your magic will rub off, particularly when you’ve turned in scores as low as Russo’s 10-under-par 62 in Sun Valley, Idaho, or his 5-under 67 at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Northern Virginia. “They like getting tips,” Russo says of his congressional playmates. “They love that.”
On any given day, Russo might get a call from Vice President Biden to play a quick round at Andrews Air Force Base. “I’ll hit one, and he’ll say, ‘I can do that, too,’ ” Russo says of the vice president. “He loves it when he out-drives me.”
Biden has been known to describe Russo, who worked for him as a lawyer in the Senate in the late 1990s, as his “third son.” Biden inscribed a photo of them that hangs on Russo’s office wall: “I enjoy being with you anywhere, particularly on the golf course. You are not only my coach, but my son.”
Or Russo might hear from Steve Largent, the NFL Hall of Famer and former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who runs CTIA-the Wireless Association. “Just watching his game improves my swing,” Largent says. “I always play better when I play with Tony.”
Or it might be Joe Baca, the Democratic congressman from California who is one of the top golfers in Congress, lining up golfers for a fundraiser. “You play to a higher level,” Baca says of his outings with Russo. “Playing with Tony makes you concentrate.”
The dining room at Congressional Country Club, all dark wood and leather, is nearly empty when Russo arrives. On the glistening course below his window seat in this elegant club that has the feel of a grand Spanish mansion, workers tinker with grandstands in preparation for the U.S. Open.
Russo has a boyish face and a soft-spoken manner, more kid-next-door than capital power player. He owns suits and ties, but Washington knows him best in a golf shirt. He tends to disappear into the background during conversations, as if he’s relieved that someone else is doing all the talking.
Russo’s father, Marty, 67, a former Democratic congressman from Illinois and longtime lobbyist, arrives in time to finish one of his son’s thoughts. Over a pre-match breakfast and a post-match lunch, Marty holds court, reminiscing about his days on the links with presidents.
Gerald Ford, he says, played a “normal game of golf” lasting four hours or so; George H.W. Bush played as if he were “on a motor scooter,” zooming through 18 holes in three to 31 / 2 hours; and Bill Clinton, well, his rounds could stretch to six hours and beyond. On the day in 1994 that Sen. Barbara Boxer’s daughter was married, Marty says he played with Clinton, who had become consumed with a certain flip shot, which he demonstrated at least 10 times. Finally, Marty told Clinton that they were going to be late to the wedding. “Marty, trust me, they won’t start without me,” he recalls Clinton saying.
At some point in the monologue, Marty self-edits, saying that “this is a story about my son” and that he should stop talking. Given an opening, Tony agrees to assess Biden’s game: “Very good athlete.” But Marty can’t help interjecting. “He used to call me up to play golf,” Marty says of Biden. “Now he doesn’t waste his time; he calls my son.”
Tony gets in a couple of words about golf being bipartisan, and Marty’s jumping in again. “Good way of developing wonderful relationships!” he says.
A few days later, I ask Tony about the contrast between him and his father — how he’s reserved and how his father, the old Chicago pol, fills the room with war stories, bluster, jaunty asides, effing thises and effing thats. Tony smiles. “It’s not common for me to be leading the discussion when he’s at the table,” the son tells me.
We’d gathered at Congressional because I was interested in watching Tony play a round of golf here, one of the two area clubs where he is a member (Robert Trent Jones is the other). I offer to drive the cart or to caddie, but he insists that I play, even though I’m only a beginner. Later, Steve Buyer, the former Republican congressman from Indiana and a frequent Russo playing partner, suggests that “Tony made you play because he wanted to learn about you. He is a very good listener. He did his own transactional analysis.”
I was experiencing a Washington rite firsthand: the golf litmus test. “Golf brings out the best and the worst in people,” Buyer says.
Throw your 5-iron into the water hazard, and the calculating Washington mind takes note — maybe I can’t count on this guy if things get dicey on a close vote. But approach the game intelligently, shrug off shanked drives and hooked approach shots, and a positive impression can be formed — maybe this guy’s stable, reliable, can think for himself. “You don’t have your staff feeding you” on the course, Baca says. “It’s an important dialogue, seeing each other and building relationships from a different perspective.”
The perspective from the first tee at Congressional can be unsettling: a fairway of shaved, bent grass that bends left and is accessible only by threading a needle between a series of sand traps on the way to the pin more than 400 yards away. On the back tee, Tony pulls his club back slowly, swivels his hips, then slashes through the ball with a motion that is, at once, violent and controlled. The ball leaps into the air, tracing a mono-colored, rainbow-shaped arc, before settling, predictably, in the middle of the fairway. I try to beg off, once again offering to caddie, but Tony insists. And by some miracle, my tee shot lands in the middle of the fairway, too.
“Sandbagger!” Tony needles. He repeats the word — golf lingo for someone who undersells his ability — when I par the hole three strokes later. I assure him that this is a most unusual outcome. But when I par another hole later in the round, I begin to think there may be something to this strange enhancing effect everyone has been telling me about.
As we wheel around the course, I ask Tony about his game, which is truly a symphony of perfected and repeated motion. But he prefers talking about mine. “You were falling back a little on that one. It’s easy to psych yourself out.”
Tony plays methodical, drama-free golf. The closest he comes to an outburst is on the 17th hole when a chip shot that most golfers would consider their best of the day lands a few feet from perfection.
“Lazy swing,” he mutters to himself. “Just ridiculous.”
Two-thirds of the way through the round, I notice Tony isn’t keeping score. I wait for him to take out a scorecard or a scrap of paper or something. But he never does. It dawns on me that it’s easy to keep track of your score when you par almost every hole.
Marty, a stellar golfer in his own right, marvels that his son still out-drives him despite hitting from the professional tees, many of which are 40 yards or more farther back than the tees he’s playing. On the 10th hole, the caddie recommends that Marty hit a “nice solid six iron” to clear a water hazard on a short par 3.
“If it goes in, I’m throwing [you] in with it,” Marty growls. Tony has seen the routine before; they play together almost every weekend. At one point, Marty comes over to our cart and hands his son a cellphone. It’s Tony’s grandmother. “Yes, I’m beating him,” Tony says of his father. “I always beat him.”
Russo is one of those men with a logical mind. It’s obvious on the golf course when he’s calculating distances and risks. It’s obvious in the workplace, friends say, where he’s the one mapping strategy in clear, unemotional terms.
When he was a kid, he loved basketball. But he calculated that golf would draw him closer to his father, who spent weekdays in Washington as a member of Congress and weekends with his family in Chicago.
They fell into a routine: Tee off at 7 a.m. and finish by 9:30 or 9:45, enough time for Marty to make it to local meet-and-greets. “That was the one thing when there was nobody there,” Tony recalls. “It was our thing.”
Marty came to the game late in life, and it represented a kind of class ascension for him. “Golf and tennis were not sports that people in my neighborhood did. They couldn’t afford it,” Marty says.
“He really wanted me to get into golf,” Tony recalls one afternoon at his T-Mobile office. “He thought golf did a lot for him. He valued that golf does a lot for you and your career. He was right.”
Tony’s the kind of guy who can’t abide “muddling through.” He’s either all in or all out. He likes fine dining and wine, but he never cooks — it’s not his area of expertise. But he became so entranced with 10-finger guitar playing that he took lessons and outfitted a special room at his home in McLean to play his high-end Ervin Somogyi Brazilian rosewood instrument.
Even though he’s one of the best amateur golfers in the region, he still flies to Chicago or Arizona once a month to drill with Ed Oldfield Sr., an instructor who has tutored many pro players. Russo keeps a “golf journal,” painstakingly notating even minor flaws. He plays almost every weekend (often twice a weekend) and is prone to stay at the course after his round to practice putting. His wife, Kimberley Russo, who is chief operating officer of George Washington University Hospital, is surely one of the more tolerant spouses on Earth. “She knew what she was getting into when she married him!” Buyer says.
Since Tony was a teenager, golf has been one of the pillars on which his life was built, insinuating itself into almost every aspect of his existence, from the personal to the professional. He played at the University of Florida and the University of Illinois, where he was the third-ranked player on a team led by his good friend Steve Stricker, currently the highest-ranked American golfer in the world and one of the favorites to win this year’s U.S. Open. Tony once dreamed of going pro. The guitar-playing habit was born of his conclusion that he’d need a hobby to occupy evenings in hotel rooms while on tour. But he eventually opted for law school.
Once he got to Washington, being an ace golfer gave him a way to connect with a universe of power players. “Members of Congress love to play golf,” Tony says.
As a lobbyist, he became a coveted guest for the golf fundraisers that dot the capital social schedule, fueling the congressional money churn. He soon found out that “members like to win their own tournaments,” he says. Naturally, if they were hoping to win, teaming with Tony always seemed to be a good strategy.
So, when Roy Blunt, a longtime Republican House member from Missouri who was elected to the Senate last year, was choosing teams at a tournament, of course, he said, “Tony’s on my team,” Tony recounts. They won, says Tony, who describes Blunt as “a great friend.”
Curiously, Blunt chose not to comment for this article, even after a staffer suggested he would likely do so. (Note to bunker-dwelling senators: Be careful about raising red flags. After being shut out by Blunt, we checked the coverage of his 2010 campaign and noted that he got pounded for supposedly being too cozy with lobbyists and special interests. Could political expediency have trumped friendship? Inquiring minds would like to know.)
The etiquette surrounding conversations in a political golf game is fungible depending on the players. Boehner and Obama, for instance, might be expected to chat a little about business but mostly to focus on the game, according to several people who have played with Boehner. It’s generally more about bonding than getting into details, though some people can’t help themselves, says Baca, who has been so inundated with shoptalk on occasion that he hasn’t been able to finish his practice shots at the driving range before a round.
From Tony’s perspective, the rules of the member-lobbyist golf game are straightforward: Don’t mix golf with business.
“You do get to spend a good amount of time with a member,” Tony says. “It’s good to get to know someone who you’re going be working with on issues.”
But there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, Tony and several other lobbyists say: Don’t bother the member with specifics while on the course. Otherwise, you might turn the member against you. Better to focus on the game. And the game, for many, is serious business. Baca says he’ll lock in, even though there’s little more than a quarter bet or mere bragging rights at stake.
Buyer teamed with Marty not long ago in a match game against Biden and Tony at Robert Trent Jones. The father and the former congressman beat the son and the vice president. “Marty wasn’t going to take Joe Biden’s five bucks, but I did!” Buyer said.
Losing a friendly game such as that one might be no big deal. But watching the pros play at Congressional will be another matter for Tony, Buyer said. Most of the audience will be watching feats that they could never dream of attaining. Tony will be watching something that seems within reach, something so plausible that he’ll be able to feel it in his soul.
“I think it’s going to be really hard on Tony,” Buyer said. “On the inside, I think it’s going to be much harder on Tony than anyone knows.”