In today’s WaPo, Richard Leiby “Just the Sport for A Leader Most Driven” describes the President’s Sunday afternoon:
Although far better known as a hoops man, President Obama seems to be morphing into a golf nut these days. He’s hit the course five times since late April — rushing out to the links on Sunday afternoon just 90 minutes after returning to the White House from his overseas trip. The wife and kids were still back in Paris; no time like the present to get in nine holes.
Mr. Obama, who is, apparently, approaching the links with the same oxymoronic intense sangfroid he brings to most of the things he does, is the fifteen of the last eighteen presidents to play golf.
The attraction would seem simple. It’s a great escape; the game demands such attention that nothing else matters. It’s time spent with friends, an unhurried afternoon in loose clothing (shorts seem to be Obama’s preference). Yet nothing is without deeper meaning where the presidency is concerned. The golfer in chief’s approach to the game is subject to analysis in psychological and political contexts.
To some, Obama’s frequent outings reflect a cool self-confidence. “Given all the things that are going on in the world and with the economy,” says sports psychologist Bob Rotella, “you’d think he wouldn’t be caught anywhere near the golf course . . . To some degree it says: ‘I’m not going to worry about what people say about me. I’m going to do my job, and I’m going to play, too.’ “
Obama’s predecessor said he quit golfing just as the Iraqi insurgency began to escalate in August 2003. “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” George W. Bush told interviewers in 2008. “I think, you know, playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”
Obama, who shoots in the mid-90s by most estimates, seems to be taking every opportunity to improve his game by hitting the courses at Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Belvoir. On Sunday, he enlisted Ben Finkenbinder, a White House press assistant, and Marvin Nicholson, his trip scheduler, who once caddied at Augusta National Golf Club, for the round.
Illinois state Sen. Terry Link, one of Obama’s early golfing buddies, sees a direct connection between the president’s calm, methodical approach to the game and his personality. “He has a competitiveness in him, no doubt about it. But he has a smart competitiveness in him. He does not get to where he’s going to blow his cool,” Link says. “He’s going to have a calculated aggressiveness, and that’s how his life is, too.”
Obama, whose grandfather Stanley Dunham golfed, toyed with the game while in high school in Hawaii. He returned to it in 1997 as an Illinois state senator. He stank. But “he kept his head in the game to improve it,” Link recalls. Hacking away, failing to get frustrated, taking lessons and practicing, Obama lowered his score. His playing is still erratic. His swing knocked his BlackBerry off his belt during one of the rounds he played while on vacation post-election in Hawaii.
Leiby, who acknowledges the preeminence of the New York Times’ Don Van Natta where presidential linksmanship is concerned, characterizes the styles of some previous presidents.
— Clinton: Garrulous on the course, hates to lose, stretches the rules. These traits were well-chronicled by Van Natta in a 2003 Sports Illustrated piece that gave birth to the term “Billigans” for the former president’s unique do-over shots, traditionally known as mulligans.
— Gerald Ford: Caricatured as the Chevy Chase of the links, clumsy, known for wild shots. But it should be noted that when Ford played in a 1995 Bob Hope tournament with Clinton and George H.W. Bush, both former presidents drew spectator blood with their errant drives. Despite his rep, Ford was ranked third by Golf Digest, after Eisenhower.
— Bush 41: Capable, quick, thoughtful. “He may not be the greatest presidential golfer, but he may be the fastest. He’s great to play golf with because he is fast. No fooling around,” says sportswriting legend Dan Jenkins, a friend and golfing buddy of the former prez.
— Bush 43: Unreflective, daring, cocky. He drew criticism early in his presidency for opining on serious world events from the greens. Referring to a suicide bombing in Israel while teeing up in August 2002 at Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush said, “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.”
RN, who had only taken up the game as Eisenhower’s Vice President, made a hole in one on the second hole at LA’s Bel Air Country Club on 4 September 1961. Holding the ball and his Spalding five iron for a commemorative photo, he said it was “the greatest thrill in my life — even better than being elected.”