Palmer also saw the true personalities of Presidents Eisenhower and Richard Nixon emerge on the course. For Eisenhower, it was the dogged determination that had made him such a great war commander. Before one game, Palmer recalled, he told the president that his right elbow was “flying” away from his body during shots. “I counseled him to always try to keep his right elbow tucked ‘as close to your body as possible’ to generate more power and hit the ball straighter,” Palmer recalled.
But Eisenhower was wearing a military-style belt with metal buckles. “Bless him, like the good soldier he was, in his determination to keep that right wing tucked as ordered, he’d actually rubbed the skin off his arm and was bleeding. When I pointed it out to him, he acted as if it were nothing but a scratch ...”
As for Nixon, golf seemed to accent the man's strangeness. He was not a good golfer but wanted to be, and he never could quite find the right things to say to his golfing partners. Palmer was once summoned to join Nixon in San Clemente. But it wasn’t for golf. It was for a high-level strategy meeting on Vietnam at which Palmer was asked his advice on how to conduct the war.
And Palmer struggled to explain why Nixon suddenly gave up the game completely. “I liked Richard Nixon despite his quirks and apparent lack of warmth,” said Palmer, adding, “I think his decision to abandon golf for political purposes revealed something fundamental about the dark side of his character, or maybe his deep social insecurities, that Mr. Nixon never permitted himself to examine.”
Nixon clearly was the exception. Other presidents have been drawn to the game because it relaxed them and offered a diversion from the cares of office. Woodrow Wilson found golf essential during World War I, often taking to the links daily. Wilson even played in the snow, using black golf balls. Other presidents were known to place bets on shots – particularly Warren G. Harding, who trained his dog, Laddie Boy, to retrieve golf balls on the White House lawn.
George H.W. Bush always displayed his impatience and his patrician upbringing when he golfed. His aides called his particular game “aerobic golf” because he raced through each round, once setting the unchallenged presidential speed record of one hour, 51 minutes for 18 holes with a foursome. He was never heard shouting, “Whoa, mama.” But when putts would fall short, he almost always exclaimed, “Power outage!” And it’s hard to top what he said after one shot in 1989: “Oh, golly darn, get up there.”
The senior Bush was but one of many presidents harshly criticized for taking up a game long considered the province of rich men. Mark Twain, recalling Abraham Lincoln, led the attack in his day. “Rail-splitting has produced an unparalleled president in Lincoln,” Twain said. “But golf hasn’t produced even a good A-1 congressman.”
Perhaps that is why Obama has allowed very few pictures to be taken of him while golfing.
But maybe Boehner will reveal what this president shouts after a good shot.