Magazine | January 25, 2010, Issue

Hail to the Golfer-in-Chief

Barack Obama tees it up, no matter the winds

On Christmas break in his native Hawaii, President Obama played a lot of golf. He tends to do that: play golf. Through terror concerns and other matters of state, he played. The press noted that Obama has played more golf in his first year in office than George W. Bush did in his eight years. (More about that later.) This has rubbed some people the wrong way: Obama’s love of, and indulgence in, golf. He loves and plays basketball, too. But he doesn’t take any grief for that — only golf.

Michelle Cottle of The New Republic wrote a piece called “Bunker Mentality” (cute title). She said, “Golf is a dubious pastime for any decent, sane person, much less for this particular president. Why would a leader vowing to shake up Washington — to alter the very nature of politics — sell his soul to a leisure activity that screams stodgy, hyperconventional Old Guard?” We can see that she doesn’t like golf very much. She went on to list five possible explanations for Obama’s “embrace of golf.” One of them was, “Image control. Obama’s enthusiastic adoption of this most corporate of pastimes reassures middle-Americans that their history-making black president isn’t too urban, edgy, or cool.” Here is something that was not among the five explanations: He really, you know — likes the game. Loves it.

One more quotation from Cottle, who said, “In the popular imagination, golf is the stuff of corporate deal-cutting, congressional junkets, and country club exclusivity.” In the popular imagination. I see, once more, that my own imagination is unpopular.

I pretty much grew up in golf, on the munis of Ann Arbor, Mich. (A “muni,” in golf-talk, is a municipal golf course.) I also worked at a couple of these courses. And golf was — is — a thoroughly democratic game. Everybody played. Young and old, male and female, wealthy and broke, respectable and scoundrelly. We had hippies and druggies, in tie-dyed shirts and sandals. We had grimy, tattooed union members. We had snotty left-wing professors from the University of Michigan. We had rednecks from the sticks. We had Korean immigrants who could barely speak English. And so on.

The whole world came by these golf courses, and all were united, a bit — not to get too sappy — by this game. Such a glorious game, and an equalizer. On the golf course, the only thing that matters is the game.

I might mention, too, that, on the courses of Greater Detroit, there was a whole, wonderful world of black hustling — I mean gambling and the like. I was lucky enough to be introduced to this world. It is very far from, say, Oakland Hills Country Club, the marquee course in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. But it is certainly golf — a game that contains multitudes. Those who think that golf is a pastime for uptight WASPs should get out more. But uptight WASPs — as well as relaxed ones — are part of humanity too, remember. If you prick them, won’t they bleed?

Plenty of political lefties play golf, but the Left in general has long had a bugaboo about the sport. I give you Hugo Chávez, the strongman down in Venezuela. Last summer, he ordered the closing of some of Venezuela’s courses, and he denounced golf in the usual, asinine terms. He called it “bourgeois.” (Has there ever been a dumber word?) He said, “I respect all sports. But there are sports and there are sports. Do you mean to tell me this is a people’s sport? It is not.” It is certainly more a people’s sport than Chávez’s government is a (genuine) people’s government.

A democratic president, George W. Bush, had a touchy relationship with golf during his time in the White House. One early morning in August 2002, he went out for a round with his father and two others. It was his custom to talk with reporters before teeing off. And, on this occasion, he said he was “distressed to hear about the latest suicide bombers in Israel.” He made a tough if standard statement, ending, “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers.” He then nodded grimly and, in perfect Bush fashion, said, “Thank you. Now watch this drive.”

This was taken, by some, to be the height of insouciance, arrogance, and irresponsibility. Michael Moore used a video of this moment in his film Fahrenheit 9/11. Others of us found nothing to object to in how Bush performed. We even grinned, warmly, at the whole episode: “That’s our boy.” As usual, this president occasioned a wide range of reactions and emotions.

It was in August 2003 that Bush stopped playing golf. He didn’t make a production out of it. He didn’t even tell anyone. He simply — stopped. In 2008, he explained, “I remember when de Mello got killed in Baghdad.” He meant Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. official in Iraq, who was killed in a terrorist bombing along with 20 others. “I was playing golf — I think I was in central Texas — and they pulled me off the golf course, and I said, ‘It’s just not worth it anymore.’ I didn’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander-in-chief playing golf.”

#page#The president’s motivation was perfectly honorable and understandable, obviously. But it was a shame that the weird stigma about golf had to be bowed to. Bush did not deny himself recreation altogether: He rode his mountain bike a lot, in those bright, huggy shorts. But golf, somehow, was too unseemly to be engaged in. Biking’s okay, basketball’s okay — golf is risky. Why? For no good reason, only because of the strange psychology with which some people are saddled.

In a column, I made a point about our boys at war: They have played golf for as long as anyone can remember. Golf at war is part and parcel of the American tradition. Our soldiers have played when and where they can, in makeshift fashion — we’re not talking about teeing it up at Oakland Hills. At the USGA Museum in New Jersey — it used to be called Golf House — there is a World War II exhibit. Among the items are some homemade golf balls, from the hands of American POWs. I know for sure that our guys in Iraq are playing, on patches of desert here and there. One of them asked me to join him and his friends, when I visited the country in 2008. Wish the schedule had allowed.

Yes, yes: A president has to guard his image, even if it means bowing to prejudice or unreason. Bush’s father, the 41st president, took some grief when he zipped around in his cigarette boat during the Gulf War. The elder Bush liked golf, too, a lot — and he liked to play fast. He developed something known in Bush circles as “speed golf.” He boated fast, and he played fast.

President Clinton, not a country-clubber but the Man from Hope, played golf all the time. Absolutely craved the game. He once observed that he was probably the only president to leave office a better player than when he entered: because he had received many tips from the pros he played with. Of course, he was not known for scrupulous honesty on the golf course, as elsewhere. Bob Woodward tells a story in his book Shadow. One day in 1993, Clinton, President Ford, and Jack Nicklaus played 18 holes together. Afterward, Clinton claimed to have shot a score of 80 (far too low for him). Woodward writes, “Ford was shocked. Golf was a matter of honor, even for old duffers, and Clinton had repeatedly taken second shots, called mulligans. Nicklaus leaned over to Ford and whispered in disgust, ‘Eighty with fifty floating mulligans.’”

Presidents since about Taft have played golf. Barack Obama joins a proud, happy tradition. And he is one of about 30 million Americans who play golf. Thirty million — not exactly an elite or exotic slice. Hell, people across the world have taken to golf ever since a shepherd boy, somewhere in Scotland hundreds of years ago, first swung at some dung with his crook. Golf is not for everybody, of course — just as certain types of music or food are not for everybody. But it’s for some of us. We were kind of thrilled when Tiger Woods came to dominance, in the late 1990s. As Colin Montgomerie (the Scottish champion) put it, “We’re fortunate to have the world’s best athlete playing our game.” Golf has been outright cool in the Age of Tiger. And now that he is a tabloid star — is it cooler yet?

But those who value this game don’t care whether it is cool or uncool. We just want to play it, enjoy it, study it, agonize over it. As I once said to a coworker, who was bad-mouthing golf in the harshest terms — this was a right-winger, by the way — “Good. Please stay away from the courses. It’s hard enough to get a tee time as it is, and play is awfully slow.”

Frankly, one of the best things I know about President Obama is that he plays golf. It probably gives him succor, solace, strength. On the golf course, as I have indicated, the rest of the world can sort of melt away. Also, a camaraderie, or brotherhood, can develop. The legendary teacher Harvey Penick once wrote a book with a memorable title: “And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend.” I imagine that President Obama and Rush Limbaugh would enjoy a round of golf together. I’d like to make a third! And maybe the president could suggest a left-leaning fourth, so that our group is philosophically even? (Incidentally, Obama is a lefty on the golf course, same as he is off — he plays left-handed, I mean.)

He swatted that fly. He called that rapper — the one who disrupted the award ceremony — a “jackass.” He has a serious jones for golf. Really, I could warm to our president.

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