It’s difficult to imagine President Obama getting so excited about a drive by John Boehner when they golf together this weekend that he suddenly shouts out, “Whoa, mama!” And the betting is against the president focusing so much on improving his swing that he doesn’t notice that he has rubbed his arm bloody in the process.
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If he did either, he’d simply be emulating some of his predecessors in office when they hit the links. Obama is the 17th president to golf since William McKinley made the first presidential putt in 1897. In the 114 years since, Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were the only nongolfing presidents.
All the others played the game, with varying degrees of success. And in doing so, they almost always attacked the course in a way that revealed their personalities. For some, it meant racing through a round; for others, venting frustration at bad shots; and for some, relishing the chance to relax and take liberties with the rules.
But despite all the speculation this week, rarely has a president struck a major political deal while golfing. Now that Obama is set to play 18 holes with House Speaker John Boehner, Vice President Joe Biden, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, there has been speculation – silly in the view of White House aides – that, somehow, Obama and Boehner will resolve their budget disagreements down along the 17th fairway.
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The history of presidents and golf, though, suggests that Boehner may leave the course with a little more insight into Obama, the man.
Bill Clinton was one of the more enthusiastic players, providing nonstop and often loud commentary. And he never cared who heard him or knew he was golfing – quite a contrast with McKinley, who kept his outings secret because he feared the political stigma of playing a game invented by foreigners.
In his first year in office, Clinton could be heard by all when he exclaimed after a tee shot on the 10th hole on Martha’s Vineyard, “Whoa, mama, stay up!” No stickler for the rules, he often dropped a fresh ball after an errant shot – something George H.W. Bush was also known to do.
Here, the contrast is with William Howard Taft, the first president to enthusiastically embrace the game. As told by the former curator of the Professional Golf Association Hall of Fame, Dick Stranahan, the rotund Taft once took 12 strokes to free his ball from a sand trap. Like every other president, Taft had partners who were not averse to sycophancy, and they suggested he record fewer strokes.
“He insisted on including each and every stroke in his score for the hole,” Stranahan said in an interview while he was still at the Hall of Fame. To do otherwise would not have fit into Taft’s view of the game as one that “affords the chance to play the man and act the gentleman.”
Probably no one has ever played with more presidents than Arnold Palmer, and he has had the chance to discover that not all presidents shared Taft’s view. In his biography, Palmer noted that both Dwight Eisenhower and the first President Bush always accepted when partners “gave” them putts. “Whether the ball was 2 inches or 4 feet from the cup, if you said, ‘That’s good, Mr. President,’ to President Eisenhower, he wouldn’t hesitate to slap the ball and pick it up, ready to move on.”
But Gerald Ford would have nothing to do with that, Palmer learned. A man whose trademark in politics was working hard and being a nice guy, Ford was the same way on the golf course. “No president ever tried harder at the game than Gerald Ford,” Palmer wrote, adding, “One indication of his passion is that if you tried to give him a putt, he would never take it but insist on trying to make it.”