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June 13, 2011
War, recession, partisanship and a lobbyist scandal turned the sport into a four-letter word in the nation's capital, but a handful of congressional golf nuts and the looming Obama-Boehner match could be game-changers
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June 13, 2011

The Politics Of Golf

War, recession, partisanship and a lobbyist scandal turned the sport into a four-letter word in the nation's capital, but a handful of congressional golf nuts and the looming Obama-Boehner match could be game-changers

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At the time of the interview Udall had just finished reading The Match, Mark Frost's account of the famous four-ball exhibition between Ben Hogan--Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi--Harvie Ward. That showdown took place at Cypress Point in 1956, eight years before Venturi stumbled to victory at Congressional amid the heat and humidity of the '64 U.S. Open. Udall says that he has never played Congressional, the Devereux Emmet design that according to the club's website was established in 1924 "to provide an informal common ground where politicians and businessmen could meet as peers, unconstrained by red tape." (In other words, a place to make deals without anyone looking.) "There's a myth that members of Congress can just present themselves at the gates of Congressional and say, 'Here I am,'" says Udall. "Unfortunately, it doesn't hold true."

Three of his staffers inform Udall that it's time to stop the golf chatter and move along, but the senator is clearly amped up. The weather is warm and sometimes beating balls into a net simply isn't enough for a man. Udall reminisces about his golf motivation ("I remember watching, on a black-and-white TV, Arnie charging from behind to win the Masters in 1958," he says) and jokes about how he and some of his Democratic colleagues judge potential electees. "We say, 'I think he's got excellent credentials, and by the way, he's a three.'"

Udall points to a closet along the far wall of his spacious office. "You know, my sticks are right over there," he says. A staffer tells him, a little stronger this time, that it's time to go. "Man, I could talk about this all day," he says, then suddenly rises, strides to the closet and pulls out a set that includes a Titleist driver and three-metal, TaylorMade wedges and an Odyssey putter. Udall pulls a club out of the bag and frowns. "Look at that," he says, "still dirty from the last round I played. I think it was at the University of Virginia course in Charlottesville. Unless it was.... Man, I gotta get back out there."

Washington was once a world where the sticks of powerful men were often dirty, and no one thought much about it. William Howard Taft, the first president to take the game seriously, played an average of twice a week during his one term from 1909 to 1913, although one of those days would've been better spent on the treadmill—Taft weighed in at about 350 pounds and had a short, choppy swing that limited his length.

Warren Harding (1921--23) was an enthusiastic player who reportedly enjoyed sporting bets on the course; celebrated sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a long account in The American Golfer of a low-stakes friendly he played with Harding, Under Secretary of State Henry Fletcher and fellow sports scribe Ring Lardner in April 1921. "The President's two best shots are among the hardest in the game," Rice wrote. "A mashie niblick pitch over trouble and putting."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933--45) was one of the better presidential golfers, though his inclusion requires an asterisk—he played before he was elected to the Oval Office and before polio put him in a wheelchair. He also lit his long cigarettes with a golf-ball lighter that had the striking mechanism on top.

It wasn't only presidents who played the game in Washington. The best politico-player ever was Jack Westland, who lost to Francis Ouimet in the final of the 1931 U.S. Amateur, took the title in 1952 (when he was 47), then ran for Congress as a Republican from Washington and served six terms. Of course, not every president liked golf. Harry Truman, who followed FDR, hated the game; he, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter appear to be the only presidents from the start of the 20th century who never played.

But it was Truman's successor who did the most to make golf synonymous with Washington. A photo snapped in October 1946 shows Dwight D. Eisenhower—World War II heroism behind him but still in uniform—playing the Road Hole at St. Andrews. After his election in 1952, there are probably as many extant photos of Ike playing golf as there are of Ike attending to affairs of state. From 1953 to 1961, more than 1,000 of his days were spent engaged in golf, either actually playing or putting and chipping on the 3,000-square-foot green he had installed, with assistance from the USGA, outside the Oval Office in 1954. (Oddly, Richard Nixon, Ike's protégé and a golfer himself, had it removed, but Bill Clinton had it restored.) Ike played in wind, rain and hail, and he played all over the place, including Congressional. His clear favorite, though, was Augusta National, where he was a member and even has a tree named after him, on the 17th fairway. Former Masters chairman Clifford Roberts once said that Ike was "the most enthusiastic golfer I ever knew."

Inevitably, Eisenhower drew fire for playing too much. A 1957 Washington Post editorial cartoon depicted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in golf attire and holding a club, tipping his hat as Sputnik orbited, a double-slam on Ike for playing golf while the U.S. fell behind in the space race. Such criticism is why his successor, John F. Kennedy, despite being a sweet-swinging player who could break 80, kept much of his golf on the down-low (page 67). Before he became president, Kennedy the campaigner was playing a round at Cypress Point when he sent a shot with a seven-iron toward the pin at the 143-yard 15th. He became the only golfer in recorded history to yell at his own ball, "Don't go in!" He was afraid that an ace would command too much attention and that the public would fear another Golfer-in-Chief was in the offing.

The Bushes, 41 and 43, had a different idea about golf. Determined to demonstrate that he was not metaphorically handcuffed (like Jimmy Carter) by events in the Middle East, George H.W. Bush issued statements about Saddam Hussein's militarism from the emergency mobile phone in his golf cart in the summer of 1990. In August 2002, George W. Bush memorably issued a stern statement about terrorism from the 1st tee at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, then without taking so much as a breath added, "Now watch this drive." He showed excellent form as he striped his ball down the fairway.

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