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'First Off the Tee': White House Golf Tales

In <I>First Off the Tee</I>, Don Van Natta Jr. explores presidential golf history.
In First Off the Tee, Don Van Natta Jr. explores presidential golf history.

He was the first president to golf while in office, but despite the energy of a 350-pound build and potential to hit the long ball, William Howard Taft was one of the worst presidential golfers. The best? John F. Kennedy, bad back and all. That's the lowdown from journalist Don Van Natta Jr., author of First Off the Tee, a book about golf and those who played it in the White House.

In an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards, the New York Times reporter notes that golf is the sport of presidents -- 14 of the last 17 commanders-in-chief took a swing at it. "It's a way to really judge their character" Van Natta says. "They're really themselves out on the golf course."

He says U.S. presidents find the sport "a mind game. They just love the camaraderie. They love being out away from the pressures of the Oval Office.

Van Natta gives Edwards a tour of presidential golf history:

William Howard Taft. "Theodore Roosevelt warned him not to play because people were laughing behind his back and even to his face. But he insisted on playing anyway and he was really a trailblazer for all the presidential golf nuts to come." Taft "did everything he could to play golf. He had a visit once with a Chilean diplomat and he said, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to give up my golf game to see this fellow.' He went out to Chevy Chase and played 18 holes."

Calvin Coolidge. "The absolute worst" player. "He didn't even dress for the game. He went out there dressed as if he was going to a dinner party. On the first tee, people didn't know whether he was going to make a toast or hit a golf ball."

Woodrow Wilson. He played almost every day. The only day he didn't play was Sunday. "He played in the snow... with golf balls painted red by the Secret Service men. [But he] never got good despite all that practice."

Ronald Reagan. He played only about a dozen times while in office, but he loved to putt around. There are photos of him putting on Air Force One and in the Oval Office.

Dwight Eisenhower. "Ike made the game accessible to people and he made the game cool." He was actually good at it, loved it and looked good playing it. Eisenhower played 800 times during his eight years in office and had a putting green installed on the south lawn of the White House. He broke 80 on a dozen occasions.

John Kennedy. Though he was a great golfer, JFK didn't want to be seen playing because he wanted to contrast with his predecessor's image of golfing his way through the presidency. "JFK and his aides made a lot of hay out of Ike's golf playing. They called him the Duffer in Chief... They kept [JFK's] game in the closet. In fact, Americans didn't really realize JFK loved golf until several months after he was in office. They let the cat out of the bag only because there were all these rumors about JFK and other extracurricular activities. He was sneaking off doing other things and [spokesman] Pierre Salinger had to tell people, 'No, no, no. He's playing golf.' That was better than the alternative."

Gerald Ford. "He hit many, many people with golf balls and took a lot of ribbing from Bob Hope and many other comedians, Chevy Chase among them." Van Natta says Ford hit more spectators because he tended to play in tournaments where crowds lined both sides of the fairway, in contrast to Eisenhower and Kennedy, who preferred to play without an audience. But Ford, an athlete, was actually a good golfer.

Lyndon Johnson. He "really tore it up. He would take 300, sometimes 400 swings to get around an 18-hole golf course... he just wanted the feel of one perfect golf shot and if it took 400 swings to do it, he was going to do it. He was the president and nobody was going to get in his way."

Bill Clinton. He leads the book's Hail to the Cheats section, which also features Richard Nixon, Warren Harding and Johnson. Van Natta golfed with Clinton last summer. "He followed the rules for about a hole and a half. Then he let down his guard and started taking these do-over shots, gimme putts and at the end of the 18 holes, it took him about 200 swings to score an 82."

The Bushes. They play "aerobic golf," a fast-paced version of the game. "In contrast to Clinton, who will take six hours to get through 18 holes with no one in front of him, the Bushes want to get off the course as quickly as possible. The score doesn't matter. It's the time elapsed that matters the most to the Bushes."

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