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Playing Golf with JFK

Dwight Eisenhower decked out in his golfing gear

Eisenhower decked out in his golfing attire.

Golfing summits are nothing new. In June 2011, President Obama and Speaker John Boehner famously tried to break the economic policy deadlock (even if it didn’t really work).{{1}}

Presidential golfing, of course, has a long and distinguished history. Perhaps the most famous golfing president was Dwight Eisenhower. He wasn’t the first president to play golf, but he elevated it to an obsession. Frustrated at being pent up in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue–a prison, Harry Truman had sometimes called it–Eisenhower got in the habit very early in his presidency of taking a bucket of 30 or 40 balls with him out on the South Lawn for a half-hour session with his short irons. When he broke 90 for the first time since becoming president, the White House press office even quietly leaked it to the newspapers. In turn, the New York Times deemed it worthy of precious column space on page one.{{2}}

JFK was probably the most skilled golfer that has yet occupied the Oval Office.

In the first year of his presidency, Eisenhower’s fondness for golf was widely seen as endearing, but by 1955 Democrats recognized an opportunity. He spent so much time on the links–some estimates put it at something 800 rounds during his eight-year presidency–that Democrats launched potent attacks against Eisenhower precisely for it. Critics attacked him for spending more time on the greens than in the Oval Office (it wasn’t technically true, of course, but the point was made).{{3}}

If Eisenhower had spent less time on the golf course and more time attending to business, Democrats charged, the country might not have been stuck in a rut. He even had to defend accusations from critics with books to sell that he had been off playing golf between the Normandy landings on D-Day and the German surrender, something the White House denied vigorously.{{4}}

JFK's golf bag

JFK's golf bag is amongst the holdings of the JFK Library.

All that practice seems to have given Eisenhower a solid game, but JFK was probably the most skilled golfer that has yet occupied the White House; this despite a constant struggle with back pain. He’d even been a member of Harvard’s golf team, but because Democrats had made so much hay out of the issue of Eisenhower’s golf obsession, JFK went out of his way to avoid being seen on the course too often. And besides, it’s hardly an everyman game, making it more appropriate for presidents than candidates.

But golf was clearly something JFK enjoyed. At one point Jackie had given him a golf course for his birthday, which isn’t quite as extravagant as it sounds when you learn that it consisted of a mowed pasture at their weekend retreat at Glen Ora (near Middleburg, in the countryside of Northern Virginia) with four-inch grass on much of the pasture with four low-mowed corners where the grass was mowed to two-inches that served double-duty as the holes and the tees. It even had a swamp, dubbed the “water hole.” There was also a small, makeshift course at Camp David that Eisenhower had had installed so that he could get his golfing fix there.{{5}}

So what’s it like to play golf with the president? I certainly can’t speak from personal experience—and don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon, and not just because I’m not much of a golfer myself—but I was particularly struck by Ben Bradlee’s characteristically vivid account of playing golf with his friend, JFK. Calling it a “harrowing experience,” he wrote in his contemporaneous notes of a September 1963 round at Newport Country Club:

In the first place, if you play golf with a president you are apt to play at some fancy country club whose code of dress requires clothes that I do not have in my wardrobe . . . like golf shoes, for openers. As a result I hit off the first tee in old sneakers, and I feel like three down before I hit a shot. In the second place, if you play golf with a president you are dead sure to be watched by a crowd of people who either play golf better than you do and therefore you know they’re going to laugh when you shank the ball, or who line the roads and shout to be recognized by your partner. In any case, that’s another two down. In the third place, there are Secret Service men all around you, carrying guns in dummy golf bags, and that doesn’t do anything for your game. And finally, if you play golf with this president, his patience is so limited that you can never stop to look for a lost ball, and that doesn’t suit my game at all.

But Kennedy is fun to play golf with, once you get out of sight of the sightseers, primarily because he doesn’t take the game seriously and keeps up a running conversation. If he shanks one into the drink, he could let go with a broad-A “bahstard,” but he would be teeing up his next shot instantly.

“He is competitive as hell, with a natural swing, but erratic through lack of steady play.”

With his opponent comfortably home in two and facing a tough approach, he might say “No profile needed here, just courage,” a self-deprecating reference to his book Profiles in Courage. When he was losing, he would play the old warrior at the end of a brilliant career, asking only that his faithful caddy point him in the right direction, and let instinct take over. He could play TV golf commentator as he hits the ball, saying “With barely a glance at the packed gallery, he whips out a four iron and slaps it dead to the pin.” He is competitive as hell, with a natural swing, but erratic through lack of steady play.{{6}}

There’s perhaps one rule of golfing with the president that rules them all, one put forward by LBJ: always let the president win.{{7}}

[[1]]Paul Kane, “Obama, Boehner to play golf June 18,” Washington Post, 3 June 2011.[[1]]

[[2]]”Seen a Golfer on the White House Lawn? It’s Eisenhower, Keeping His Eye on the Ball,” New York Times, 12 February 1953, 18; W.H. Lawrence, “President Joints Under-90 Golfers; 86 Beat Taft in First of 2 Rounds,” New York Times, 21 April 1953, p.1.[[2]]

[[3]]Ryan Becker, “Top 5 Golfing Presidents,” 21 February 2011,[[3]]

[[4]]”No Eisenhower Golf D-Day to V-E Day,” New York Times, 6 November 1959, p.1.[[4]]

[[5]]Benjamin C. Bradlee, Conversations with Kennedy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975) p.211.[[5]]

[[6]]Ibid, 209-11.[[6]]

[[7]]Don Van Natta, Jr., “Handicapping the Obama-Boehner ‘Golf Summit’,” New York Times, 11 June 2011.[[7]]