The Sport of Presidents: The History of US Presidents and Golf

Alexandra Kitty
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Chapter One

The US presidency has been a symbol of power, and has been the dream goal for most of its citizens as it represents victory, success, and the ability to change the world. It is idealism and pragmatism wrapped in a single position, and one that is not given, but earned through a grueling campaign. The presidency is the sign that you have not just arrived, but you are ready to deliver your vision that lasts long after you are gone.  The job of Commander in Chief is seen as one that has gravitas that is all work and strategy, but even presidents need a diversion to help them focus and regroup whenever a national or global crisis proves to be vexing.

What is fascinating to note is the number of presidents who had the same pastime in common: golf. Regardless of personal background, education, or previous profession, the sport is a unifying theme. North or South, Democrat or Republican, those who have held the highest office are drawn to the same game time and again, regardless of decade or social climate that defined their times.

So ingrained is the sport to the position that when George Herbert Walker Bush passed away in 2018, his love of the sport was part of the final tributes, along with his political legacy. As his son George W. Bush made mention of his golfing at the time:

“He played [golf] fast so he could move on to the next event, to enjoy the rest of the day, to expend his enormous energy, to live it all,” George W. Bush said. “He was born with just two settings: full throttle, then sleep.”

The game goes deeper than a mere reflection of a president’s leadership style. Bill Clinton’s “golf buddy” was (and still is as of this writing) former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. The game has been a shrewd and quiet way to cultivate political alliances for more than one president as we will see. The sport also serves as a quiet showcase of each leader’s strategic prowess, both the highs and the lows: Warren G. Harding came in third in the first annual Washington newspaper correspondents’ tournament in 1921 (quipping “How good do I have to be to win?”), but by 1923, his fatigue on the course was seen as a sign that he was ill and nearing the end.

As the United States became an increasingly powerful and influential nation, the sport of golf seems to be a natural extension of the American presidency: the game represents something more than mere escape from the pressure of the job. It is not just a way to unwind or escape the pressures of the job, but its symbolic function should never be underestimated. It signals to citizens and leaders abroad that the president has control and everything under control. While presidents have all wildly differed in background, policy, style, temperament, mandate, popularity, and ideology, what is the common thread among them is the sport they play.

The link between the sport and the office has a long and storied tradition even before the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was dubbed the Golf President, and whose passion transformed golf into the Sport of Presidents. Ever since Eisenhower made the pastime part of mythos, including installing The White House Putting Green in 1954 and sometimes going into the White House with his spiked golf shoes, almost every president save for Jimmy Carter has been an avid, and often gifted golfer. While William Howard Taft was the first one in office who played the sport, he would hardly be the last.

Presidents have used the sport to more than just unwind or get their dose of outdoor exercise: they often can hold their own with professional golfers, and show the world their skills extend beyond the White House. Deals have been negotiated on the green as Lyndon B. Johnston was known to do. Alliances with other world leaders have been cultivated on the course, as Clinton had done adroitly during his time in office. For those jockeying for the rare opportunity to get the president’s ear – the path to do it is not always in the Oval Office or a G20 Summit, but during a game of golf. The importance of the sport at the nation’s highest office cannot be dismissed. When the Commander in Chief is riding high in the polls, the press often lavishes praise on his seemingly leisure pursuits as footage of his game makes national headlines, but when the president becomes unpopular, the amount of coverage is often the same, yet reporters will chastise the president for his choice of pleasure over work. But in both cases, the stories run without questioning who else is on the course and what is happening behind the scenes. 

Golf is the sport of choice for those who make the White House their office, home, and legacy. It is not tennis, trap shooting, or cycling that keeps the presidents active and powerful, but golf. While there is no shortage of pursuits a president can engage in to let off steam, golf is the constant for almost every person who has won the toughest of competitions.

But why does golf and a presidency go together, and how did it become the Sport of Presidents? While there are pragmatic reasons why golf has become the natural sport of choice, its place in political power is more complicated than it first appears. It is the game that takes place on a large landscape, and its strategic ways can turn a course into a map. It is a symbol of power, pragmatism, and learning to think far ahead and in the long term that makes the game a powerful tool for the most powerful of people. As we will see throughout the book, it is the club that is more powerful than the sword, and has been the silent partner of many presidents throughout the decades. While not every president was a good golfer, each who played it had used it as part of their political repertoire. Johnson managed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass through the Senate by playing golf with those senators who weren’t likely to vote in favor of it. By the end of the game, he broke through another barrier until he reached his goal. 

Golf is not the only way a president indirectly communicates with the people: from church attendance to the choosing of a White House pet, there are many subtle ways to send a message, yet golf is one of the most elegant ways of doing it. It can disarm opponents as it can build bridges with them. It can allay fears as much as criticism. It can also be a show of strength, fitness, and shrewdness with a single stroke. 

And when the tenure is over, a president can hang up the clubs as Calvin Coolidge left his behind in the White House, while others, such as George W. Bush, continued to play years after his second term was over. The game paints a very different portrait for each one who held the office, and each president made the game his own.

Golf has always been more than a sign of status; for a president, it is part of the machine that keeps the country moving forward. While some presidents have used the sport as a photo op, what they have presented to the public was a sign of fitness and vigor; yet behind the scenes, the game has a deeper political purpose.

It can also be a place to quietly work with the inner circle as Politico noted for Joe Biden’s first golf game as President on April 17, 2021:

Joe Biden is playing his first round of golf as president Saturday at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. 

Biden is golfing with Ron Olivere, the father-in-law of Biden’s late son Beau, and adviser Steve Ricchetti, according to a pool report. In nearly three months as president, Biden has often spent weekends at home in Wilmington without holding public events.

But while Biden worked the course, he made an interesting remark:

In 2014, when he served as vice president, he said a presidential run could hurt his golf game. 

“If you want to keep your handicap in golf don’t run for President. So I expect strokes,” Biden said, according to CNN. It was unclear if he was joking, CNN reported. 

It’s not clear if Biden had his best round Saturday.

“The course record is still intact,” Biden said, smiling and quipping to reporters.

Yet golf often helps the office rather than hinder it.

Because of its power, a president can immerse in the game and enjoy it on many levels. As filmmaker Todd Phillips revealed in August 2016, former President Clinton surprised Phillips that he enjoyed the game in celluloid form:

[He] was amused to learn the former president’s favourite movie is 2007[’s] golfing movie ‘Who’s Your Caddy?’, which starred Outkast’s Big Boi.

He said: “[Clinton] is literally everything you heard about. He’s so engaging, he looks you in the eye and talks to you about what he thinks you would be interested in.

“I was sitting next to him and he kept talking to me about movies, because – he didn’t know who I was but – ‘Here’s a director’.

“I remember him telling me about how he loves comedies and he said the one film he loved [when he was flying] was ‘Who’s Your Caddy?’, that was his favourite comedy.

“And he said, ‘Have you ever seen it? I was like ‘I actually haven’t seen that movie.’”

The game personalizes the leader as it still sets the president apart. It can push through legislation, break impasses, but also show the human side of the president.

But the game can also serve other purposes, such as help the fortunes of those who fell out of favor with the public. Former President Barak Obama boldly did for troubled golfer Tiger Woods in February 2013:

U.S. President Barack Obama played golf Sunday with Tiger Woods, the White House said.

Once the sport’s dominant player before his career was sidetracked by scandal, Woods joined Obama at the Floridian, a secluded and exclusive yacht and golf club on Florida’s Treasure Coast, where Obama is spending the long Presidents Day weekend. The two had met before, but Sunday was the first time they played together.

The move caused shockwaves, and yet had its own strategic logic to it:

The foursome also included Jim Crane, a Houston businessman who owns the Floridian and the Houston Astros, and outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. Crane and Kirk also were part of Obama’s foursome Saturday, the White House said.

Obama, an avid golfer, also received some instruction last Saturday and played a few holes with Butch Harmon, Woods’s former swing coach.

It was a surprising, but potent show of confidence that was in tune with Obama’s egalitarian leadership style. A simple game spoke more eloquently than a speech ever could. People should accept and forgive, and if a president has no qualms about it, then neither should they.

Journalists, columnists, and pundits have used the Sport of Presidents to read the signs, as the New York Times did in 2003:

George Bush is going through the motions of recreation, grimly determined not to be held captive in the White House. His aides, knowing his stubborn side, do not press him to cut short his 25-day holiday, even though some believe that it would be more appropriate if Mr. Bush returned to Washington for more than brief visits, as he was to on Sunday. And they would prefer it if he stopped speaking to reporters about the chilling Persian Gulf crisis while sitting in his golf cart. 

…“The President doesn’t even seem to be having fun racing around the golf course,” the official added. “It’s almost as though he’s on some driven mission.”

His father before him had a different reportage from the same newspaper in 1990:

President Bush has become the ninth honorary member of the Royal and Ancient golf club, the club announced yesterday in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Bush, a high handicap player who has said he likes to “hack” at the game when he has time, joins a trio of illustrious American golfers – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gene Sarazen – as honorary members of the home of golf.

Golf is seen as an omen of the president’s deepest thoughts as well as the leader’s own personal prowess. Those insiders who know the president are often on the course, and they know much of the workings of the office go beyond the Oval Office and out in the field.

This book chronicles how each president made the sport their own, how they incorporated it into their political strategy, how the press interpreted their game, and the lasting impact of the game on the nation. It is one of the most underappreciated aspects of the American presidency, but like a swing of a club, the sport has moved the tiniest of grains to create a global powerhouse, allowing each Commander in Chief to facilitate critical deals, cultivate strategic alliances, and make bridges in impossible places on the path to progress. It is one of the most important sports in the history of the world, and it should not be any surprise it is the sport of choice of presidents. Its power is exciting as it is historical, and it has quietly, yet dutifully served the country one swing at a time. It is the sport that is most in tune with the soul of the highest office, and it is one whose role has not been fully appreciated.

This book is an empirical psychological odyssey of a different sort. Let’s begin by taking a look at how the sport became so integral to the office in the first place.


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