It is said to be the office of the “leader of the free world” yet, highlighted by the dying days of Donald Trump’s presidency, one of the most challenging handicaps for US presidents seems to have been on the golf course
21 January 2021 | Marcus Reubenstein (Image: Golf Digest)
The president of the United States is not only leader to 330 million inhabitants of the world’s most powerful democracy, he’s the torchbearer of global freedom and relentless protector of America’s staunchest allies.
Surely that must give the president many sleepless nights?
However, amidst numerous wars, financial crises, depressions, domestic unrest and periods of enormous global instability, presidents have always found time for 18 holes.
In the weeks after Donald Trump’s election loss—by more than 7 million votes—he fueled voter fraud conspiracies, Tweeted (until he was banned) and was seen more times playing golf than doing anything else.
On the day US media outlets declared Joe Biden had won the presidency Trump was on the golf course as he’d been more than 300 times throughout his one term in the Oval Office. That’s better than a round a week whilst occupying the most important office on the face of the planet.
Trump out-trumped by predecessors
He may own a dozen golf courses—true to form there’s no exact number with various reports putting it the number between 11 and 19—but Trump is nowhere near close to owning the presidential golf playing record.
President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) was commander in chief during World War One and one of the central characters of the ill-fated Versailles peace conference. Over the first six years of his presidency, he managed to get in an average of four rounds of golf per week, ironically he suffered a stroke whilst in office putting an end to his golf.
Golf is so engrained in the US presidency that its pursuit has even spawned, popular website, the Presidential Golf Tracker.
Golfers in chief
Howard Taft (1909-1913) is credited as the first president to popularise the tradition of commanders in chief adding golf to their job description. His predecessor President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) wrote to Taft during the 1908 presidential campaign complaining, “It would seem incredible that anyone would care one way or the other about your playing golf, but I have received literally hundreds of letters [from people] protesting about it.”
Not only did that criticism not bother him but Taft encouraged the press to report on his golf outings whilst he was president.
Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower (1953-1961) began playing golf whilst studying at the US Army officer training school Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He rose through the military ranks to become Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War Two, all the while lowering his golf handicap.
His wartime record propelled him to the White House where almost every Wednesday afternoon he would slip out for a round of golf, adding to his regular Saturday game.
Eisenhower played more than 800 rounds of golf whilst in office. A year into his presidency he had a 28 square metre putting green installed on the White House lawns. After leaving office he complained that his short game had suffered; and the US Professional Golfers Association claimed he once said the “thrill of his lifetime” was sinking a hole in one.
In 2009 he was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame—only in America!
Eisenhower convinced his then Vice President, Richard Nixon (1969-74) to take up the game, and he managed to get his golf handicap down to a very respectable 12 strokes. However, during his presidency Nixon was not a regular golfer, as the Vietnam War heightened and the Watergate scandal devoured his presidency, he abandoned the game after the 1972 election.
Nixon’s impeachment and resignation brought Gerald Ford (1974-1977) into the White House. A former college footballer, he was a naturally gifted athlete who once played a round with legendary Golf Major champions Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, hitting longer than both of them off the tee. Though he regularly hit into the trees he still played off a 12 handicap.
In summer months Bill Clinton (1993-2001) would some days work as late as 5:00pm. Having solved the world’s problems he would head off the Army Navy Country Club in Virginia for 18 holes.
Over the eight years of his presidency his golf game got better, in a 2012 interview for a PGA film he said:
An avid life-long golfer, Clinton shot his lowest ever round early in his second term as president. In total he racked up more than 400 rounds whilst in office.
George W. Bush (2001-2009) comes from solid golfing stock. Both his grandfather, Prescott Bush, a Wall Street banker turned US Congressman, and great grandfather, George Herbert Walker Senior, served as presidents of the US Golf Association.
To this day he remains a keen golfer and despite his folksy demeanor he only played 24 rounds of golf during his eight years in office.
His father George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) was a noted fast player, who had little time for reading lies and lining up shots. He holds the record of the fastest round of golf played by a US president, playing in a foursome he finished 18 holes in just 1 hour and 51 minutes.
Despite his preference for speed over accuracy, he managed to maintain a very impressive handicap of 11 strokes. Bush Senior joined Eisenhower as the only other president to be inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame.
Barack Obama (2009-2017) had the White House tennis court adapted so it could also be used as a basketball court, he later became an avid golfer, playing 333 rounds of golf during his eight years in office.
Trump’s amazing handicap
With teams of Secret Service agents keeping prying eyes off golf courses, and playing partners who’d be very brave to challenge the President of the United States, it seems a little odd that so many presidents had virtually identical golf handicaps that hovered around 12.
Donald Trump (2017-2021) appears to have been the least handicapped of all commanders in chief. According to Trump his golf handicap is 2.8, a number which puts him a lot closer to a tour professional than the average of all the other presidents.
Trump’s handicap, accumulated from play at his own golf clubs, is widely disputed. However, having played regularly for 52 years, he is by most accounts a very capable golfer. His game was analyzed, and a number of golf partners were interviewed, by sportswriter Rick Reilly who wrote a book on Trump and golf. The title says it all, “Commander in Cheat: How golf explains Trump”
And Biden’s time?
According to Golf News, Joe Biden (2021- ) may well be one of the best golfers to have occupied the White House, with his handicap having been reported as 6 strokes, though it estimated the actual number was most likely closer to 10.
His demeanor, and commitment to focusing all his efforts on America’s out of control COVID-19 pandemic, suggest Biden won’t be seen too often on golf courses and country clubs around Washington DC. As the oldest ever president to take office, at 78 his advanced age would also dissuade him from multiple rounds of golf.