Presidents' golf games can speak volumes

This year’s Masters golf tournament, marked by Martha Burk and her 20-odd comrades, wasn’t the first notable golf event to be marked by a protest.

In September 1974, fresh off his decision to pardon President Nixon, Gerald Ford flew down to Pinehurst, N.C., for the opening of the World Golf Hall of Fame and a celebratory round of golf with legends Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

First off the Tee
Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush
By Don Van Natta Jr.
357 pages; $26
Public Affairs, 2003


He was greeted by a group of young activists, angry at his letting Nixon off the hook. Undaunted, he played nine holes and returned to the clubhouse to give his remarks. Extolling the virtues of golfing camaraderie but obliquely referring to the pardon, he said, “I would hope that understanding and reconciliation are not limited to the 19th hole alone.”

So relates New York Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr. in one of many such vignettes on the intersection of golf and the presidency in his new book First Off the Tee.

One expects a book like this to be little more than a collection of amusing anecdotes. And on that score, it certainly delivers. But Van Natta also cleverly organizes the book and weaves the narratives in such a way as to use golf as a window into each president’s personality. He breaks the book up into four sections: “The Purists,” “Worst off the Tee,” “Hail to the Cheats” and “41 and 43.”

Guess who makes it into the “Hail to the Cheats” category? Why Nixon, Clinton, Harding and LBJ, of course, probably the four most reviled, least trusted presidents of the 20th century — a point not lost on Van Natta.

The idea for the book came to Van Natta in 1999, when he penned a piece delving into President Clinton’s reputation for generous scoring on the golf course. In Martha’s Vineyard for post-impeachment R&R, Clinton claimed to have shot 79. The story made the wires, but several of Van Natta’s sources demurred. Said one: “I haven’t seen him shoot in the 80s. Without all the mulligans and gimmes, he’d be in the 90s — okay, maybe the low 90s. Maybe.”

Indeed, after writing countless stories about Monicagate, that story was the only one that prompted a call to Van Natta from Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe. Criticize a man’s golfing integrity? Them’s fightin’ words. “To quite a few Americans, it did matter,” surmised the author. “Cheat us here, they seemed to say, and he’ll cheat us over there.”

Similarly, Richard Nixon was fond of blurting out after a wayward shot, “Oh, that didn’t count.”

Nixon, of course, wasn’t as committed as Ford, Kennedy, FDR and Eisenhower, the “purists.” Ford, a professional-caliber football player and a gifted natural athlete, had a reputation as something of a terror on the golf course (he had a penchant for beaning spectators). But Dave Stockton, the winner of several Professional Golfers Association tournaments, said Ford “could be much better if he could find more time to play. But I hope he doesn’t. I’d rather he be a good president than a good golfer.”

John F. Kennedy, another natural athlete, apparently could have been very accomplished on the links had he been able to practice. Even though he could go months without hitting a ball, and even given the recently disclosed severity of his medical ailments, Kennedy still regularly hovered around 80, making him the best presidential golfer.

He was also the most paranoid, however. At a time when Democrats were becoming increasingly class-conscious, Kennedy hid his affinity for the “rich-man’s game” from the public. He used to skip holes on the course to avoid being viewed by passersby or nosy photographers. He once ventured out onto the South Lawn under the cover of pea-soup fog to hit a few irons unnoticed by tourists.

He felt compelled to go to such lengths chiefly because of the brazen, shameless golfing obsession of his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike played every chance he could get, and practiced even more, opening himself up to criticisms that he was aloof and aristocratic.

What of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania? “For years, 41 was a better player than his son and more devoted to the game. … Sometime in the past decade, however, George W. surpassed Dad.” Although it took him 55 years, it must have been just as satisfying as anyone who has bested the Old Man.