America learned early about President Obama’s love affair with basketball, a romance so intense that during the 2008 campaign reports kept leaking out of his camp that if elected, he planned to convert the one-lane bowling alley installed by President Nixon in the White House basement into an indoor court – a notion quickly kiboshed when it became clear that many devotees of the ball-and-pins might vote for Sen. John McCain rather than let this happen.
But although Obama has been known to dribble and dunk whenever his schedule allows, it was a foregone conclusion that sooner or later he had to come to grips with the real sport of Presidents, and so over the holidays reports came out of his Hawaii hideaway that he had been seen on the local links, was taking golf lessons, and dutifully attempting to find out just how huge his handicap is going to be.
The 44th President undertakes the sport with a distinct disadvantage: he is the first President since, perhaps, William Howard Taft who never had the chance to play with Bob Hope. And so it is that Peter Corrigan of the London Independent devotes a column to discussing Obama’s taking up golf and his place in the Presidential traditions connected with tees, hooks, and double eagles. (Not to mention the Vice-Presidential tradition, established by Spiro Agnew and so often mentioned by Hope and Johnny Carson, of beaned spectators.)
Nearly every golfer under the age of ninety can quote Lacey Davenport’s line from Caddyshack, “Nixon plays golf” – in a film made, as it happens, a year after RN broke 80 on a California course and then gave up the game for good. Quite a bit could be written about Nixon’s quarter-century on the greens, off and on, before that happened, but Corrigan focuses on the time in the early 1970s when Arnold Palmer was invited to San Clemente and there found the President and, perhaps inevitably, Bob Hope. The journalist continues:
[Palmer] was asked his opinion about how the US should end the Vietnam war. He muttered something about not pussyfooting about and “going for the green”. I’m not sure if they bombed Cambodia as a result, but as valuable as a pro’s advice is when it comes to your swing it shouldn’t carry weight in real life.
Collinson’s account is not quite true to the record. It’s hard to picture the forthright Artie “muttering” any advice, and the account that Palmer gave in the 2000 book (as quoted from his own website) is as follows:
Perhaps Palmer’s best memory of the [Bob Hope] tournament has nothing to do with what happened on the course. It was at the Hope in the early 1970s that Palmer was summoned to a mini-summit with President Richard M. Nixon. A U.S. Marine helicopter picked up Bob Hope, Palmer and their spouses and flew them over the mountains to Nixon’s Western White House at San Clemente north of San Diego.
On hand with Nixon was Vice President Gerald Ford, foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger and a host of top level national security officials. “It seemed the president wanted to pick our brains, of all things, about how to end the war in Vietnam,” Palmer told author James Dodson in the Palmer biography, A Golfer’s Life. When Palmer’s turn came to express his opinion, Palmer sheepishly told the Commander-in-Chief to “get this thing over as quickly as possible, for everyone’s sake. I mean, why not go for the green?”
The golf pro’s advice got a round of laughs from people who were unaccustomed to the levity.
Levity aside, at the end of 1972, when it looked like North Vietnam would balk at signing the Paris peace accords, President Nixon went ahead and sent bombers to Hanoi, in that sense “going for the green.” And that brought Le Duc Tho’s negotiators back to the table, and thus the war ended for the United States. Palmer’s meeting with the President also happened well after the Cambodia bombing. The lesson here is that it pays, especially in this age of Google and Books.Google, to check the sources.