The New First Golfer

On the golf course, American presidents have always revealed a thing or two about themselves, and Obama is no different; grace under pressure

The New First Golfer: Barack Obama
February 2009
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Golf was not Barack Obama's idea.

His game was, and always will be, basketball. Golf wasn't even on his mind. But his wife, Michelle, was becoming concerned about the increasing frequency of his hard-court injuries -- the sore wrists, black eyes and sprained fingers suffered during pickup games in courts around Chicago. "Why don't you take up something less dangerous?" Michelle told her husband in early 1997. "Like golf?"

She didn't need to ask twice. Within days, Obama dragged a scuffed set of used clubs to the Jackson Park Golf Course, the historic Chicago public track. It had been nearly two decades since the newly elected Illinois state senator had played a few rounds in high school back in Hawaii. Obama wasn't quite sure how to dress for the game (one friend recalls an early round when he arrived on the first tee, on a sweltering summer day in southern Illinois, clad in a black silk shirt). And so his pals prepared themselves for what they figured would be a rare treat -- a spectacular Barack Obama crackup.

"When he first started, you couldn't call him a golfer," says Illinois state Sen. Terry Link, who played one of those first rounds with Obama. "He left a lot to be desired, at first."

Even during those early rounds with scores of 100-plus, Obama, a lefty, flashed a smooth swing and exhibited a consistently unruffled demeanor. On the golf course, American presidents have always revealed a thing or two about themselves, and Obama is no different. Throughout his public life, particularly during the most intense moments of his historic presidential campaign, Obama demonstrated grace under pressure. When things went well, he never became too impressed with himself; when things went wrong, he never sank too low. Obama balances a confident unflappability with a blunt self-assessment of his shortcomings; the combination has served him well in politics and in sport.

And in golf, as in life, Obama refuses to take any shortcuts. "When he'd shoot an 11 on a hole, I'd say, 'Boss, what did you shoot?' " says Marvin Nicholson, 37, the Obama campaign's national trip director and now a special assistant to the president-elect. "And he'd say, 'I had an 11.' And that's what he'd write on his scorecard. I always respected that."

As one old friend says, "No one is harder on Barack than Barack." In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes his 2000 bid to unseat a Democratic incumbent for a congressional seat as "an ill-considered race, and I lost badly -- the sort of drubbing that awakens you to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you'd planned."

On the golf course during those ugly early rounds, his shots almost never worked out as he had planned. But friends say Obama never lost faith that he would, some day, improve.

"His inability to play the game at first and his frustration at not being able to compete with me did not lead him to quit or throw his clubs in the water," Link says. "I admire that, and I will admire that in his presidency -- he doesn't get frustrated out there as all of us golfers do. We take our frustrations out on that little white ball, but he doesn't. And that's his attitude about everything in life: If I want to do something, I have to learn how to do it and not give up on it."

Obama approaches the game in the same way that he conducts his politics -- maniacally methodical, aggressively competitive and devoutly risk-averse.

"Every time he came out, you could tell he had gone and practiced and tried to work on his game," says James Clayborne Jr., an Illinois state senator and frequent playing partner. "He didn't like losing. He was a beginner, and sometimes he had to take the whupping. But he never liked it. He's a good athlete. Before too long, he was beating a lot of the guys who had beaten him."

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