Trump’s golf habit the most presidential thing about him
US president visited Turnberry earlier this week and is latest in long line of enthusiasts
US President Donald Trump as he plays a round of golf on the Ailsa course at Trump Turnberry. Photo: Andy Buchanan/Getty Images
Once Chequers was done with, and Windsor out of the way, Donald Trump turned to the more pressing presidential business of addressing a golf ball. Trump spent last weekend at his resort in Turnberry, “for two days of meetings, calls and hopefully, some golf”. According to a source quoted on Politico, this section of the trip was arranged to entice the president into attending the Nato summit in Brussels “like a dessert he earned after eating his vegetables”. Trump had not been to Turnberry since he became president, and was eager to get back. According to the Trump Golf Count website, Sunday’s outing was his 121st visit to a golf club since he took office.
Now, it wasn’t so very long ago that Trump was criticising Barack Obama for spending so much time on the golf course “with all of the problems and difficulties facing the US”. Well hell, smoke floats, water’s wet and Trump’s an inconsistent hypocrite. His golf habit may actually be the most presidential thing about him, one of the few ways in which he’s living up to the office. Of the 21 men who have been president since the beginning of the 20th century, 17 were golfers. Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter were the four exceptions. Otherwise, golf’s the presidents’ game.
Don Van Natta Jr wrote the book on all this. It’s called First Off The Tee. His theory is that a game of golf is a “three-hour reprieve” from the presidency, one of the few public things a president can do without being subjected to too much scrutiny. The golf course is also one of the few places where presidents run into the limits of their own power. “The game certainly cannot be wowed by the trappings of the Office,” Van Natta writes. The people who play it, on the other hand, certainly can. When they asked Eisenhower how life changed after the presidency, he said: “I notice people don’t give me as many short putts.”
Lyndon B Johnson said: “One lesson you’d better learn if you want to be in politics is that you never get out on the golf course and beat the president.” Golf’s the game you play if you want to get ahead. That’s Trump’s excuse. “I’ve made deals on a golf course that I would have never, ever made over a lunch,” he said. “I actually told the people at Wharton, ‘You should give a course in golf.’” Trump’s views on voter fraud were, he said at first, shaped by a second-hand anecdote from Bernhard Langer, which, surprise, later turned out to be untrue. Well, Richard Nixon once got so desperate he asked Arnold Palmer’s advice on what to do in Vietnam. “Go for the Green,” Palmer told him.
Palmer was convinced that Nixon’s golf “revealed something fundamental about the dark side of his character”. There’s an idea that, as David Lloyd George put it, “you get to know more of the character of a man in a round of golf than in six months of political experience”. So JFK had a natural talent, despite his osteoporosis, and probably had the best game of the 17 presidents. But Kennedy, Nixon said, liked to keep it a “secret vice”. He rarely let anyone take a photo of him on a course, and would play only the holes that were out of sight from the clubhouse.
Kennedy felt he had to keep his golf secret because Eisenhower was criticised for playing so much of it. When Eisenhower finished, the floor of the Oval Office was pocked with the marks of his golf cleats. He had a practice range put up in the White House basement and a putting green on the back lawn. He was a great evangelist for the game and motivated millions to try it for the first time. Including Nixon himself, who took it up just so they would have something in common. Nixon, inevitably, was a cheat. Sam Snead recalled seeing him throw the ball out of a thicket of rough. “What could I say? He was the president.”
Gerald Ford was so wayward and clumsy that Bob Hope filled an entire set with jokes about his game: “You all know Jerry Ford – the most dangerous driver since Ben Hur”; “He’s easy to spot on the course – he drives the cart with the red cross painted on top.” Bill Clinton was famously flexible about enforcing the rules, and had a very generous interpretation of his own privileges. Clinton once told reporters he’d shot an 80 during a game with Jack Nicklaus and Jerry Ford. “Yeah,” Nicklaus whispered to Ford, “an 80 with 50 floating mulligans.” Obama, according to Larry David, is phlegmatic and unflappable.
Then there’s Trump, a man who has already shown so much of himself that there’s nothing much left to learn from the way he plays. It’s no surprise that he brags about how he avoids all expert instruction, and refuses to even think about technique, because he prefers to play by instinct. He’s also one of the few people who seems to believe that golf’s problem is that it’s not exclusive enough. “Let golf be elitist,” he said. “Let people work hard and aspire to some day be able to play golf. To afford to play it. They’re trying to teach golf to people who will never be able to really play it.” And, of course, according to several of his playing partners, “he cheats like hell”. – Guardian service
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