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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN

Capitol Games

Bill Clinton is Only the Latest in a Long Line of Presidents Who Have Had a Passion for Golf

June 12, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The limousine is actually the fastest, most heavily armed golf cart outside a James Bond movie, and it glides up nearby regularly, seemingly without warning.

President Clinton alights, then heads for the first tee at Congressional Country Club, frequently with Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan in a five-hour, 80-some-stroke (give or take a mulligan or 12) escape from the White House.

Many swings have helped straighten out his slice in his second term.

"Oh, he plays here all the time," says Maxine Harvey, an administrative assistant at Congressional.

She will say no more, keeping the same counsel she does about the games of all of the club's 1,100 members, but those who have played with Clinton say it's a round of chatter and jokes, broken by yells at his ball.

"He is probably more sheer fun than anyone I've ever played with--and that's thousands of people," says Roy Neel, president of the U.S. Telephone Assn. in the book "Presidential Lies."

"He has a real appreciation [of golf], but he's not a purist."

The liberal mulligans, oft-used metaphorically by his Republican critics, attest to that.

He's called the First Golfer, but actually he's only the Most Recent, because every president since William Howard Taft has played, save for Herbert Hoover, the fisherman; Harry Truman, the poker player; and Jimmy Carter, the softballer, jogger and rabbit hunter.

Taft got it started in 1909, which was tough because he had to get a club past his 355 pounds, marked down to 295 by a presidential lie. He played well enough to score in the 90s, often enough to become a target from critics who figured he should be more concerned with tariffs than tee shots.

"The beauty of golf to me is that you cannot play it if you permit yourself to think of anything else," he said, and he permitted himself to think of nothing else about twice a week.

He was a better player than Woodrow Wilson, but most were. Wilson's steady score of 115 or so wasn't from lack of effort. He played six times a week, and Washington's snows were no deterrent, because Wilson found he could play with balls painted red by a Secret Service detail and left to dry beside a White House furnace.

As an everyday player during World War I, he found it difficult to escape the burdens of office. Wilson learned of the sinking of the Lusitania while playing in Maryland. He played one morning in 1917, then went to Congress to ask for authority to declare war on Germany. The next day, he was back on the course.

Warren G. Harding's escape was twofold: from the pressures of the office and limitations of Prohibition at the Chevy Chase Club, where members were incensed by his imbibing on the course. Release came from Edward McLean, owner of the Washington Post and of a private golf course, where waiters appeared with Scotch-and-sodas every four holes or so for Harding.

"He and Kennedy probably gambled more on a golf course than any other presidents," said Andy Mutch, a historian with the U.S. Golf Assn.

Harding shot in the 90s, and his game was a $6 Nassau ($6 for the front nine, $6 for the back nine and another $6 overall), with presses and side bets, two or three times a week.

Calvin Coolidge wouldn't have bet him, or anyone else. Coolidge, a tightwad, liked the game more when he found one of the perks of office was honorary membership at any Washington club he chose to play, including Congressional, where he was the guest of honor at its opening in 1924.

He left early to get his usual nine hours of sleep.

Coolidge was the only president to play left-handed and was an indifferent player with little aptitude for the game--he took an 11 once on a 130-yard par three at McLean's private course--or any other sport. When he played, it was often in high-top tennis shoes, and when he left the White House, he left his clubs behind.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had played the game well, winning his club championship at Campobello in his youth, and played often until being felled by polio in 1921. But he left a legacy to the game with his New Deal's Works Progress Administration building municipal courses all over the country.

Not playing was difficult for him.

Said wife Eleanor: "Golf was the game that Franklin enjoyed above all others. . . . After he was stricken with polio, the one word that he never said again was golf."

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a fanatic, picking up a golf club upon getting out of bed in the morning, carrying it through the White House during the day, stepping onto a specially built putting green outside the Oval Office and working on his short irons on the lawn.

He occasionally broke 80, played twice a week in Washington and twice a day on vacations at Augusta National. Little irritated him more than having reporters around watching his backswing.

Or worse, his putting.

He was about 225 yards off the tee, often with a slice and temper, and near the green, Eisenhower was deadly.

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