Eisenhower and Other Presidents Above and Below Par

For years the general impression of Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, our 34th president, was that he was a hands-off president who delegated most of the decision-making to his staff so that he could spend his days playing golf.  During his re-election campaign in 1956, Democrats even spoofed Ike’s golf habit by creating a bumper sticker that read “Ben Hogan for President:  If we’re going to have a golfer, let’s have a good one.”  Only recently has Ike’s image changed — and rightfully so — to a president who was engaged and decisive, and who reserved for himself the tough decisions.

But he did play a lot of golf, approximately 800 rounds during his White House years — his doctors believed golf was good for him, and by extension the country, because it relieved much of the tension that built up due to the pressures of his job.  (Ike’s golf obsession was also good for golf; the number of golfers in America more than doubled during his White House years, in part because Ike’s image as a regular guy changed golf’s image from a game only rich people played to one anybody could play).  Ike even grabbed his pitching wedge when he woke up in the morning, swinging it as a kind of early morning exercise routine, and he had a putting green installed outside of the Oval Office.

Many of Ike’s predecessors also played a lot of golf and also claimed it helped them cope with the demands of the job.  The president who played the most golf ever was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who played nearly twice as many rounds as Ike — some 1,600 — although Wilson, due to several physical handicaps, may have been the worst president golfer in history.  The president considered the best golfer was also a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, although Kennedy kept his golf playing low-key because he thought it would hurt his public image.

Most of our recent presidents also played golf.   When Bill Clinton played, or so the story goes, he asked for so many “mulligans” (do-over shots that didn’t count against your score) that his playing partners started calling them “Billigans.”   George W. Bush was also a regular on the links in his first term but stopped playing because he thought a president playing golf in the wake of so many national tragedies — 9/11, Katrina, etc. — sent a bad signal.  President Obama, by contrast, has been a faithful golfer despite the nation’s problems.

In any event, Eisenhower continued his love affair with golf even after leaving the White House, scoring his first and only hole-in-one this week (Feb. 7) in 1968, at the Seven Lakes Country Club in North Carolina.  He was 77 years old.