Presidents Golf Championship: Preview of Opening Matches

Presidents Golf Championship: Preview of Opening Matches 1JFK is the favorite.

THE OPENING MATCHES of the first annual Presidents Golf Championship (PGC) will be played this week at Augusta National Golf Club. Always a difficult test, Augusta will be set up to play as benignly as possible for the field of 16 presidents.

Still, things could get very ugly around the former tree nursery. All highly competitive men, these are not tour professionals but rather an odd assortment of amateur, part-time golfers. I’ll bring you first-round results on Thursday, but today I have a special preview of the seedings and opening matches.

“John F. Kennedy ranks as the finest presidential golfer and this tournament’s favorite,” says PGC guest analyst Don Van Natta.

Author of First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush, Don offers his commentary and predictions for the eight opening matches below.


#1 John F. Kennedy
#16 Ulysses S. Grant

Commentary: This is the most lopsided mismatch in presidential sports history. Grant was the first American president to hold a golf club, though his only attempt to play lasted three minutes. His first swing missed the ball by six inches, and he took a second whack, then a third, a fourth … but he never made contact. A member of the Harvard golf team, Kennedy’s game was a nearly effortless marvel. Despite a chronically bad back, Kennedy possessed a smooth swing, consistent control and a sharp-shooter’s short game. He rarely played a full 18 – instead he was a drive-by golfer, playing eight or 12 holes – but if he had, he would have averaged around 80.
Prediction: Kennedy

#8 Barack Obama
#9 Ronald Reagan

Commentary: Reagan-Obama is a dream match-up. Both men are charismatic leaders who view a golf course as a forum to swap stories, tell jokes and briefly escape the burdens of big-league politics. Although he was a much better golfer as a young man, Reagan shot in the high 90s, or even 100. Reagan played a memorable round in the autumn of 1983 at Augusta and was once given a putting lesson in the Oval Office by Ray Floyd. (It didn’t help much.) President-elect Obama played a few times in high school in Hawaii, and then didn’t touch the clubs for two decades. He picked up the game again in early 1997 in Chicago as a young state senator. A lefty, Obama shoots in the mid to high 90s.
Prediction: Obama

#5 George H.W. Bush
#12 Woodrow Wilson

Commentary: This is an interesting match because George H.W. Bush (or “41,” as his son, “43,” calls him) and Wilson have something in common: they played the game less for fun and more out of a sense of obligation. Despite being an inconsistent golfer with a very shaky putter, Bush has managed to put together a few decent rounds in the low 90s while playing at his home course of Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine. Wilson played on doctor’s orders. Although he teed it up at least 1200 times, making him the most prolific golfer of all the American presidents, he was consistently awful, and once required 13 putts to hole out on a green.
Prediction: Bush

#4 Franklin Delano Roosevelt
#13 Richard Nixon

Commentary: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) adored golf, playing often, and quite well, as a young man in Washington. Roosevelt played golf nearly every morning, and few men in the nation’s capital could hit the fall as far. In 1923, FDR’s polio forced him to give up his beloved game. In 1953, Vice President Nixon took up the game because he knew there were only two ways to connect with his boss, President Eisenhower – fishing or golf. His score was often enhanced by a liberal supply of mulligans and gimme putts. (Sam Snead once caught Nixon tossing his ball out of the woods and then pretending to have hit it.)
Prediction: FDR


#6 George W. Bush
#11 William Howard Taft

Commentary: Our current president plays his golf the way he plays his politics – by the gut, a “tin cup philosophy” that often gets him into big trouble. Like his father, “41,” President Bush rushes around the course in madcap fashion, trying to put the game out of its misery as quickly as possible. During his first term, he had a few legitimate scores in the low 90s, friends say. Taft’s mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, warned Taft that golf was “fatal” for a man seeking the White House. Taft ignored that advice and played often, and comically, during his one term in the White House. He rarely broke 100, and once blew off an appointment with a foreign dignitary to play golf.
Prediction: Bush

#3 Gerald Ford
#14 Lyndon Johnson

Commentary: Gerald Ford had trouble shaking the bad rap that he was an erratic, dangerous golfer (Bob Hope’s rapid-fire quips didn’t help). Ford earned this reputation because he was the most daring of all the presidential golfers, playing in pro-am tournaments while president. But he was a great athlete, a big boomer off the tee and pretty fair around the greens. At his best, he could shoot in the high 80s, which makes him a president to watch in this tourney. Johnson didn’t really care about golf at all. He played at the urging of his aide, Jack Valenti. LBJ routinely hit the ball 300 times a round; he believed you just keep hitting the ball until you got it right.
Prediction: Ford

#7 Bill Clinton
#10 Warren G. Harding

Commentary: This is the “let-the-good-times-roll” match. The 42nd president, Clinton is a liberal taker of “Billigans” – the do-over shots and gimme putts that are bestowed on him by willing playing partners smitten by the irresistible Clinton charm. Despite that, he’s long off the tee, hits a decent iron shot and owns a good putter (lessons from Dave Pelz have helped). Harding played golf during Prohibition. While drinking on the golf course, he bet on golf. He didn’t just bet on the front nine and the back nine; he had a bet on every swing. Harding lost many of those bets. He rarely shot lower than the mid-to-high 90s, but he never had a bad time.
Prediction: Clinton

#2 Dwight Eisenhower
#15 Calvin Coolidge

Commentary: Eisenhower would have been rated the best presidential golfer if he had only tamed his erratic putter. No one loved the game as much as Ike, whose high-profile embrace of golf literally made it cool. He often shot in the high 80s or low 90s. Coolidge was so apathetic about the game that when he vacated the White House in 1929, he left behind his golf clubs. He only played a handful of times as president, and he never played well or with good humor. “Silent Cal” said little about anything, including golf. But he did say, “I did not see the sense in chasing a little white ball around a field.”
Prediction: Eisenhower

Best of luck to all 16 presidents. Come back on Thursday for the results of the opening matches.

Win an Autographed Copy of First Off the Tee!

Sign up for a chance to win a free autographed copy of Don Van Natta’s First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush, a New York Times bestseller and Sports Illustrated book of the year. Entry is at right under the brown box.

−The Armchair Golfer

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Neil Sagebiel

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