The Meaning of Golf
As Craig Morrison looks into most of the First Golfers of The United States of America, from JFK to The Donald, golf, as we know, reveals much about a man.
Golf, as we know, reveals much about a man. So as the President of The United States of America.
He loves to golf, does the President of The United States of America. It’s reckoned President Taft was the 1st First Golfer. His predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, may have played the game too, but it was Taft who first came out, who first openly played it, who first extolled it.
“You know my tendency to golf,” he once wrote, “my sympathy with anybody who wants to play it, and my desire to spread a love for the game whenever I can. Golf is a splendid recreation which can be enjoyed with profit by the young and the old. It is in the interest of good health and good manners. It promotes self-restraint, and, as one of its devotees has well said, affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman. It is the game of all classes, not a mere plaything for faddists, nor, as many suppose, a game for the rich man only.”
And with those words, he teed it up for countless other commanders-in-chief to walk the fairways.
Woodrow Wilson, who followed him into The White House, was very keen but less than useful. His scores were high despite a dedication to the sport that saw him notch up estimated 1,200 rounds while in office. After him, Harding played, almost equally enthusiastically. In fact, Warren G had Harding Park in San Francisco named after him. Next up, Calvin Coolidge golfed. Then there was Herbert Hoover: not a golfer. But FDR was useful before he contracted polio. As a student, he won the club championship at Campobello Island Golf Club beside his family’s summer home in New Brunswick up in Canada. As President, he brought in the great public works projects which included Bethpage Park in New York, home to some of the nation’s finest municipal courses. And there’s a course in his name in Philly too.
Truman didn’t play. But then came Eisenhower who was famously into golf. He had the putting green built at The White House, was a member at Augusta and, when back in Washington, played regularly on another Alister Mackenzie course at The Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Maryland.
JFK - one of the most skilful Presidential golfers - played at ‘The Tree’ too. So, did LBJ, Nixon and Ford. Carter wasn’t a golfer. But Reagan and then George H.W. Bush played, often at Burning Tree. But that club didn’t do it for more recent Presidents, presumably because it aggressively excludes women and the world has, mostly, changed.
Clinton golfed. George W. as well, but in troubled times he learned to stay off the course as his critics found it convenient ammunition against him. Post 9/11, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, it just didn’t look good on him.
Next up, Barack Obama: the first person of colour to hold the great office and - let’s hope historians remember this too - the first Presidential golfer to play left-handed (not the first left-handed President). Barry played a lot. But he was cautious, to begin with. He didn’t play once during his first 100 days and, even as he got into the swing of things he rarely took advantage of the great courses available
to him, choosing instead, mostly, the military set-ups at Fort Belvoir and at Andrews Air Force base where the cost to the tax-payer was lower, and the accusations of prestige and privilege couldn’t be so easily levelled against him. As a candidate, Barry played basketball. As President, he became a dedicated golfer, playing 306 rounds in eight years in office. But conservatives were unforgiving. It has been ok for most US leaders through the 20th and 21st centuries to play golf, but they turned on Barry big-time, a jumped-up negro costing us money was the subtext to their complaints.
And now, at time of writing, we have Donald Trump, the second person of colour (spray-tan orange, admittedly) to put his feet up on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. Trump, despite his advanced age and girth, is maybe the best of all Presidential golfers. He’s a member at Winged Foot and owner of 18 wonderful clubs, not a decent set of forged irons and a few spare hybrids, but actual clubs, with courses and members and guests and hotels.
For The Donald, there is no difference between desiring and doing. He just gets on. We can all learn from him, and golfers especially can learn a lot from him. Visualise the shot and hit it. Often it comes off. Picture your dreams and realise them, no matter how outrageous (and, in Trump’s case, ostentatious).
Unlike his predecessor, President Trump has quickly thrown himself into the role of First Golfer, playing six times during his first month in office. (Your average golf writer doesn’t hit the course nearly as much.) Back when he was just a self-employed real estate developer with a sideline, in reality, television perhaps golf outings were racked with guilt, but now with a steady job he can get out there on the course again, not a care in the world.
He has a funny old putting stroke yet is useful on the greens. His swing is idiosyncratic too, sweeping and swerving around his immense backside and waist. But Tiger Woods has been impressed at “how far he hits the ball at 70 years old,” adding, “he takes a pretty good lash.”
And yet his hands are small, the subject of much meanness but here the subject of a serious point: almost all the really good golfers I’ve met have big hands. Yet Trump who raised his little paws aloft at a rally and announced he could hit a golf ball 285 with them - gets away with it. So, he is a man who can overcome shortcomings.
Despite those diminutive digits, he is clearly a man of excellent timing, some strength, some skill and supreme confidence, the ideal candidate to lead the free world.
Or not? Golf, we know, reveals much about a man. It undresses him, reveals his true character. We hear this constantly because there’s much truth in it.
In the P.G. Wodehouse short story, Ordeal by Golf, Alexander Paterson visits the narrator, The Oldest Member, to ask his advice about appointing a new treasurer at the Paterson Dyeing and Refining Company. The Oldest Member, a comedic sage whose name is never revealed, dispenses some sound thinking, worth quoting in full:
“The only way of finding out a man’s true character is to play golf with him. In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself. I employed a lawyer for years until one day I saw him kick his ball out of a heel-mark. I removed my business from his charge the next morning. He has not yet run off with any trust funds, but there is a nasty gleam in his eye, and I am convinced that it is only a question of time. Golf, my dear fellow, is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well. The man who can smile bravely when his putt is diverted by one of those beastly wormcasts is pure gold right through. But the man who is hasty, unbalanced and violent on the links will display the same qualities in the wider field of everyday life. You don’t want an unbalanced treasurer, do you?”
We don’t know that America’s leader is hasty, unbalanced or violent on the links. We hear, however, from many sources, that he is not exactly a man to play it as it lies and is likely to lie as he plays. That God’s watching him when he’s alone in a patch of rough matters not to him, we might conclude.
Samuel L Jackson claims Trump cheats. Oscar de la Hoya claims Trump cheats. Alice Cooper claims Trump cheats. Several prominent media commentators say the same. That’s actors, boxers, rock stars and journalists. The next terms in the sequence are buy-to-let investors, serial killers and priests: the full rogue’s gallery of golf partners lining up to make accusations.
Newspapers, naturally, have run their own investigations into Donald’s rumoured dishonesty on the course. They’ve found lots of smoke and a little less fire. Here’s what they’ve found: if a man flies you to a golf course and his name’s on the plane, and his name’s on the sign above the clubhouse and if it’s an excellent layout, and he’s fun to be with, and the golf’s gratis and lunch is paid for, and if he miraculously finds his ball in the bushes, who’s complaining? Sure, the media has some good solid sources, but it’s dismissed speedily: fake news, Donald says.
Craig Morrison is the author of 18 Greatest Scottish Golf Holes and 18 Greatest Irish Golf Holes. He is a freelance golf writer, a contributor to many international titles, including HK Golfer. An Anglo-Scot, he lives in Somerset, England. Discover...