- Don Van Natta Jr., Senior writer, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
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IT IS THE FIRST Sunday morning in May 2011, and the president of the United States tees off on the East Course at Andrews air base. It is Barack Obama's 66th round of golf as president, and as usual, the media and the public aren't invited. Like nearly all of Obama's previous outings, the only witnesses are his playing partners -- a trio of White House staffers -- and a platoon of Secret Service agents.
Obama's favorite game is basketball, a love affair that began at age 10 when the father he barely knew gave him a ball. But by his third year in office, golf has become his most cherished escape. The press corps is forbidden from following the president from hole to hole or even taking his photograph on the course. For a man who laments that he "misses being anonymous," the golf course has become the one place he can disappear.
On this morning, Obama calls it quits after nine holes, a curious turn for a
golfer who typically insists on 18 holes during rounds that last as long as six hours. No explanation is offered to the media. The lone pool reporter is forced to guess at the reason, blaming the somewhat "chilly weather and rain."
Back at the White House, Obama, still clad in a white golf shirt, khaki pants and a navy blue windbreaker, doesn't return to the residence, as he usually does after a round. Instead, he strides to the Oval Office, swaps his black-and-white cleats for dress shoes, hustles downstairs and takes a seat inside the Situation Room. Here the president, still dressed for a Sunday round, watches a monitor as Navy SEAL Team Six storms a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and kills Osama bin Laden.
FOR MORE THAN a century, golf has ranked as the favorite pastime of American presidents. Fifteen of the past 18 chief executives have played the game -- most joyously (Eisenhower, Ford, Clinton), a few grudgingly (Coolidge, LBJ, Nixon) and nearly all dangerously risking duck-hooking a drive into a gallery. The presidential golf tradition began ignominiously when William Howard Taft -- all 320 pounds of him -- ignored the counsel of his political mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, who had once declared "Golf is fatal" to any political man. Despite that warning and newspaper cartoons lampooning his buffoonish swing, Taft kept right on playing the gilded game, all but admitting that he preferred golfing to governing. Taft was a one-term president.
But in the century since Taft, no president has been more vilified for his love of golf than Obama. And perhaps not surprisingly, no president has done more to keep his game a secret. During the 104 rounds Obama has played as president, photographers have been permitted only five times, according to White House pool reports. Even then, they've had to use telephoto lenses from 40 or 50 yards and only for a few moments. Reporters accompanying Obama are usually banished far from the first tee; at Andrews, they are
quarantined inside the base's food court. The last golfing president to ban photographers was John F. Kennedy. In the half century since, many presidents have held impromptu news conferences on the first tee. George W. Bush infamously told reporters in 2002, "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive."
Few details are given to the White House press corps about Obama's golf game. When asked for the POTUS' handicap, press secretary Jay Carney likes to joke, "That's classified." The president usually decides to hit the links a day or two in advance, weather permitting. Reporters hear about it only as the presidential motorcade, with Obama's Nike VR S clubs tossed in the trunk, leaves for the first tee. His pals won't even reveal his favored ball, though a source says Obama eschews specially made presidential golf balls for Titleist Pro V1s.
Just as Obama the president relies on a coterie of White House advisers, Obama the golfer plays with the same handful of people -- a tight circle of junior White House aides and advisers, most often body man Marvin Nicholson (a former caddie at Augusta National) and confidential assistant Eugene Kang. When on vacation in Hawaii, the president plays with buddies from Chicago and a few old Hawaii pals. None of those people would comment for this story. The first rule of golf club: Don't talk about golf club. Understandably, White House and senior campaign officials declined to discuss Obama's golf in the homestretch of a re-election year. He has rejected requests by senior party officials to golf with wealthy contributors to raise money for the Democratic National Committee, as Bill Clinton had done. Dozens of writers (including this one) have asked to tag along for a round with Obama; the answer is always no. Only once since becoming president has Obama played with a journalist -- Thomas Friedman, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. Their round, predictably, was off the record.
WHEN PRESIDENT-ELECT Obama was on vacation in Hawaii in December 2008, video was shot of a few of his holes. Along a rock wall bordering the final hole at Kailua's Mid Pacific Country Club, a crowd of 100 witnessed a rare treat: an Obama wedge shot flying low and straight for 75 yards before settling on the edge of a green.
"Hey, guys, that was pretty good, right?" Obama asked the crowd. "That almost made up for my 20-yard drive."
Everyone laughed. "Better than your bowling!" a man in the gallery yelled, referring to the pitiful 37 Obama rolled at a Pennsylvania bowling alley during the 2008 campaign.
"That's right!" Obama replied.
For the following two and a half years, White House golf would be on the down-low. The president had inherited a nation in economic free fall, and the administration was aware of the pitfalls of appearing disengaged. But on Saturday, June 18, 2011, Obama decided to mix avocation with vocation -- an exception that would prove his rule. In a bid to jump-start stalled budget talks with Congress, the administration arranged a historic golf summit with House Speaker John Boehner. It was the first time a sitting president had agreed to play a round with the leader of the opposing party.
Boehner, who owns an 8-handicap and a permanent tan- (you can't have the former without the latter), relished the chance to beat the president -- and score political points. He declared that he would tell Obama on the first tee, "Mr. President, you can have all the strokes you want. It'll just cost you a trillion dollars per stroke." But when they met on the range, Obama, in an act of political jujitsu, insisted Boehner team up with him. The two men beat Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to win $2, but the round did little to bridge the gulf between them or build a consensus on managing the
national debt, and presidential scorecards returned to a need-to-know basis.
On Father's Day this year, Mark Knoller, a White House correspondent for CBS News and the self-appointed tabulator of Obama's golf rounds, put the news out on Twitter: Obama was playing his 100th round as president. "It got picked up everywhere," Knoller says. "I get the feeling the White House isn't crazy that I count the rounds, but facts are facts."
The Republican National Committee jumped on the news, issuing a news release titled "Duffer-In-Chief: Obama Hits 100." The subheadline: "Obama's 'intense' golf game is his 'primary avocation.'" The release went on to contrast Obama's rounds with those of George W. Bush, who played 24 times during his first three years in office and quit after launching the Iraq war. "I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf," Bush said.
It was not the first time the GOP went after a Democratic president over golf. In 1996, Bob Dole challenged the veracity of Clinton's scorecard, enhanced by a large helping of Billigans. "I don't know whether he shot an 83 or 283 or 483," Dole said. "You'll never really know."
But for Obama, the criticism has been unrelenting. In December 2011, a Republican committee named Romney Victory Inc. set up FortyFore.com, which counts the number of rounds Obama has played. The site says a donation of $18 "is all it takes to send President Obama on a permanent golfing vacation." At the Republican National Convention in August, at least five speakers told jokes about Obama's golf game. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's quip was typical: "For four years, Barack Obama has been running from the nation's problems. He hasn't been working to earn re-election. He's been working to earn a spot on the PGA Tour."
Even Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has been in on the act. "I just think it's time to have a president whose idea of being hands-on
does not mean getting a better grip on the golf club," Romney said in December 2011. Romney himself is an oddity -- a wealthy capitalist who does not play golf.
IT'S OFTEN SAID that golf exposes a man's character, and it's equally true for presidents. Lyndon B. Johnson agreed to play only after being told the links could be useful to twist the arms of recalcitrant senators. Warren G. Harding gambled and drank whiskey on the course (during Prohibition, no less); he also ran one of the nation's most corrupt administrations. The Bushes, wearing monogrammed "41" and "43" caps, played quickly, indifferently and often recklessly. To keep the game moving, George W. Bush rarely laid up, preferring risky drives over foreboding bodies of water. He failed to envision -- or chose to ignore -- the likely disastrous outcomes.
What's most revealing about Obama's game is the simple fact that there still is one -- even in the face of all the carping. "In a weird way, you have to give Obama credit for continuing to play," says Steve Rushin, who has written about presidential golf for Golf Digest. "It does speak to the fact that he genuinely loves playing golf. It would not be all that difficult to stop playing for appearance's sake."
Instead, sources say Obama, a lefty, has shaved a few strokes off his handicap since 2008 and plays to about 18. But he is far from the most prolific presidential golfer. No president golfed more than Woodrow Wilson, who played at least a handful of holes nearly every morning on doctor's orders to curb his stress level. Dwight D. Eisenhower played nearly 800 rounds across two terms, inspiring Democrats to say Ike had invented the 36-hole workweek. (The quip was literally true; Eisenhower played every Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning.) Compared with them, Obama is a dilettante, although one with the passion of the recently converted. He didn't take up the game until his mid-30s, while a state senator in Springfield, Ill. His wife, Michelle, nudged him onto the links, hoping he would
trade his smashmouth brand of pickup basketball for the more gentlemanly game of golf. Now Obama sees the game as his only chance to just wander around.
Golf, for Obama, has become "a sanctuary of sorts," says Andres W. Lopez, an attorney who has known the president since their Harvard days. Still, there might be one more reason Obama has stuck to his beloved game -- and why Romney's camp seems bent on making him quit. Since the 1980 presidential election, a curious trend has emerged: Jimmy Carter. Walter Mondale. Michael Dukakis. Bob Dole. Al Gore. John Kerry. John McCain. None of them played golf. All of them tasted bitter defeat. All of them lost to golfers.
For a century, golf and the presidency have gone hand in glove. In ESPN The Magazine's DC issue, Don Van Natta Jr. writes about why Barack Obama hides his game from the world.