December 25, 2008

The Bush Golf Dynasty

The two presidents, 41 and 43, weren't the first golfers in the White House -- or the first in their family

THE THREE AMIGOS: How many families can count two Presidents of the United States and a governor in the same golf group? George H.W. Bush (top left), the 41st president; George W. Bush, the 43rd president; and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush after a round at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Maine in July 2001.

THE THREE AMIGOS: How many families can count two Presidents of the United States and a governor in the same golf group? George H.W. Bush (top left), the 41st president; George W. Bush, the 43rd president; and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush after a round at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Maine in July 2001.

If you're a friend or a relative of George Herbert Walker Bush, Prez 41, or George W. Bush, Prez 43, or any other Bushes, then you know an 18-hole round of golf shouldn't take more than three hours out of your day -- there are other important things to do. Like, oh, you know. Overthrow a tyrant. Imprison a terrorist. Expose a saboteur. And those are just the Democrats.

Funny, huh? No? Well, at least try to remember there's a war on, and loose libs sink ships. Just getting your attention, actually. I'll bet you'd be dozing off right now if this piece had started off discussing Nancy Pelosi's new book, How the Snob Sport of Golf Has Ruined America and Everybody in San Francisco Who Didn't Vote for Me.

This is about the Bush golf dynasty, is what it is, and the first thing you need to be reminded of is that the Bushes didn't introduce golf to the White House. A hacker named William Howard Taft, Prez 27, did that. Around 1909 or thereabouts.

Taft was the first president of the United States who was enthusiastic about the game, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it. Taft visited Augusta, Ga., before there was even a Masters or an Augusta National. Oops, too early, an aide told him.

Earlier, a White House resident named William McKinley, Prez 25, had expressed an interest in this new game that some Scot had brought to America, but his advisers convinced him that the public wouldn't like to see their leader frittering away his time on something called a golf course when there was an Industrial Revolution going on. McKinley, as we know, got assassinated anyhow.

Of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower gets credit for doing more for golf than any other White House resident, a mid- to high-handicapper though he was. It used to be fun back in the '50s for us sportswriter slugs to watch the White House press corps come filtering into our Quonset hut on the last two days of the Masters because Ike was coming to town when the tournament was over and Hogan or Snead had won again.

"Hey, look, there's Merriman Smith!"

"Who?"

"The guy who always gets to say, 'Thank you, Mr. President.' "

"What for?"

Ike aside, you have to say the Bushes have done their part for the game. As for these Bushes, by the way, they didn't even introduce golf to themselves. They had ancestors who took care of that. One of them was George Herbert Walker, Old 41's maternal grandfather -- his mama's daddy.

G.H. Walker, a single-digit handicapper, was president of the U. S. Golf Association in 1920, and that year he decided to donate a cup to an international competition for amateurs. Legend has it that G.H. didn't want the matches or the trophy named after him, but the blue coats and striped ties managed to twist his arm. Two years later, the first Walker Cup between the United States and Great Britain & Ireland was played at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island.

Senator Prescott Bush and family

Things were a little different then. The U.S. side invited any country that wanted to compete, but only Great Britain made it. And then there was this: Bernard Darwin, the golf writer for The Times of London, was invited to play when British captain Robert Harris "fell ill." Darwin took out U.S. captain William C. Fownes Jr., but a U.S. team that included Chick Evans, Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones had more than enough talent to make up for it.

The 41st president and father of the 43rd recalls a story about his grandfather and Jones that once made the family rounds. Supposedly, G.H. bawled out the young Jones one day for losing his temper and throwing a club in a tournament. But after the scolding, G.H. put his arm around Jones' shoulder and told him that if he could control his temper, he could become the greatest player the game had known.

This seems like a convenient place to mention that Prez 41 is an old pal of several years, and he's my chief source for much that's in here. Not to guest-room drop, but at one time or another I've been overnighted at Camp David in Maryland, at the Kennebunkport compound in Maine and in the Houston homestead by Old 41 and the incredible Barbara, the Valerie Hogan and Barbara Nicklaus of first ladies.

It was 15 years ago that the president invited me to join him, former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton and then-U.S. Congressman Marty Russo, the Congressional golf champion for 10 of the previous 14 years, for a game. After a helicopter ride aboard Marine One and a 15-vehicle motorcade, we ended up at Holly Hills Country Club in Ijamsville, Md., a little under an hour by car from D.C. As I said at the time, the president seemed to take himself far less seriously than any CEO of any plastics company I've ever encountered. He was the friendliest and most relaxed person in every room and on every fairway.

By my scoring that day, the president, who once played to an 11, overcame his objection to the use of mulligans to shoot a three-mulligan 86 or a two-mulligan 88. Payton shot a three-mulligan 85, I shot a three-mulligan 78 or a two-mulligan 80. And Marty Russo shot a one-mulligan 68, which put him at a shocking four under par as well as under arrest.

Fast-forward 15 years. Interestingly, Old 41 remembers hearing that his grandfather had also been a good friend of Dwight F. Davis, the man who donated a cup for tennis back in 1900. However, the 41st president doesn't remember whether G.H. Walker and Dwight F. Davis were friends of Joe Bob America, the gentleman who donated a cup to the sport of yacht racing.

Senator Prescott Bush and family

Another ancestor who contributed to the Bush golf dynasty was Prescott Bush, Old 41's father. Prescott Bush was himself a president of the U. S. Golf Association at one time -- 1935 -- before he became a U.S. senator from the state of Connecticut. Prescott Bush was by far the best golfer in the family. He was beyond scratch, an eight-time club champion at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, where for many years he held the course record of 66. Cape Arundel is also where Old 41 once went 18 holes in about two hours. I know this. I was playing along with him. We had to hurry so we could go for a speedboat ride and take a walk before lunch.

Your Bushes don't throw a lot of grass up in the air when they play.

My own assessment of 41's game is that he has a good swing, and there's evidence of a lot of athleticism in the guy. But like most golfers, the short game is his weakness, especially putting.

"I could be great, but I'm allergic to practice and I break out in hives," he says. With such a family pedigree -- two presidents of the United States, two governorships (Texas and Florida), a senator (Connecticut) and two presidents of the USGA -- you'd think it would help his game.

But as we say in Texas, "A pedigree don't cure a pull hook."

Could be one reason why he jumps out of airplanes.

I asked Prez 41 to assess the golf games of his sons.

"Jeb's our best golfer," he said, speaking of the governor of Florida. "He's a single-digit man -- maybe an 8. He hits the ball a mile, has a great natural swing and loves the game. Both Neil and Marvin play acceptable golf. Mid-teens."

And Prez 43, the current CEO of the dynasty?

"Forty-three could be a single-digit man if he had the luxury to play more and practice," 41 said. "He hits a long tee ball. He plays very fast -- maybe he needs to take more time, but who am I to suggest that? I expect he's about a 15 or 16 today, but if the windmill and dragon's mouth are out of sync, it might be closer to 18."

Hard to beat that for an ender.

The Bush Dynasty