December 7, 2009

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

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."

John Bouman, another early playing partner, attributes Obama's "smooth, coordinated swing" to helping him shave strokes off triple-digit scores. "He has a heck of a lot more balance than I do," says Bouman, the president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.

"The great thing about him," Nicholson says, "if he duffs one dead into the woods, there's no cursing. The most excited we get on the golf course is a fist bump."

Barack Obama's swing sequence

Now that he was a golfer, Obama refused to put away his basketball, much to the chagrin of Michelle, who does not play golf. "Like any smart, red-blooded American man, Barack decided to take up golf and still play basketball," says Dan Shomon, an Obama aide in the state Senate who had encouraged his boss to play golf. "Barack thought, This is great -- now I get to play golf, and I can continue to play basketball. He figured he had pulled the ultimate scam on Michelle."

Later that year, Obama played four rounds in Chicago with Ian Manners, a Brit who was married at the time to Obama's half-sister, Auma. The rounds, Manners said, allowed him and Obama to get to know each other and, as Manners put it, "get away from the women."

Already, Obama's handicap was 24, quite a feat for a man who had been playing less than a year. "He played percentage golf, always keeping the ball under control, whereas I was always going for the big one," Manners recalls.

Whenever he needed it, Obama seemed to have a special constituency pulling for him: The golf gods.

"If I went into the trees, my ball would stay there," Manners says. "If he went into the trees, it seems like the ball would always bounce out, 50 yards farther up the fairway. I joked with him that if he was as lucky at politics as he was at golf, he'd be president some day."


Sometime early in the last century, golf became the most beloved presidential pastime. Obama will be the 15th American president of the past 18 to have played the game, a century-long run of golf-obsessed chief executives that began ignobly with the 340-pound William Howard Taft. President Taft pursued his passion, comically, despite the warning of his mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, that playing golf could be "fatal" for a political man. The stigma was long hard-wired to the gilded game; John F. Kennedy had often forbidden photographers from going anywhere near his golf outings in Palm Beach and Hyannis Port.

Bill Clinton had a pollster figure out how Americans would react if he played golf on vacation (the game didn't poll as well as hiking in the mountains; Clinton played golf anyway). But today, the game's political peril has all but vanished despite George W. Bush's very public abstinence from golf during the Iraq war (most of the time). Golf is now seen as a boost to practically any long shot, even a national political career for an African-American man with a funny name from the South Side of Chicago.

"An awful lot can happen on the golf course," Barack Obama told a friend a decade ago.

He decided to play golf later in life in pursuit of something other than just escapist pleasure, just as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had. For LBJ, the golf course was a convenient venue to lobby senators into voting for legislation that he was championing, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (LBJ said, "One lesson you'd better learn if you want to be in politics is that you never get out on a golf course and beat the president.") Vice President Richard Nixon was 40 when he took lessons because he knew the game was the surest path to winning over his boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

For Obama, golf was appealing because he believed the game would help him connect with his colleagues in the state Senate as well as his constituents in far-flung places like downstate Illinois. Much to his surprise, he soon fell hard for the game's charms. Friends say he became as devoted to golf as he is to his beloved basketball. "Basketball and golf are his one-two," Marvin Nicholson says. "Now, he wants to play all the best courses: St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black.

"He usually shoots in the mid-90s, sometimes the low 90s," Nicholson says. "He'd be better if he could play more. ... He's pretty long off the tee... very good around the greens, a real good short game. The clubs that give him the most trouble are his long irons... or he'd shoot around 90 pretty consistently."

But a dozen years ago, as a young state legislator in Springfield, Ill., Obama was a public-course hacker who just wanted to fit in. The two best ways were golf and poker. "Yes," Terry Link laughs, "we did both those evil things." In the winter of 1997, Obama was a regular at the legislators' weekly Wednesday-night poker game, nicknamed The Sub-Committee Meeting. It was held, amid the cigar smoke and empty beer bottles, in Link's basement, and no one can recall Obama ever losing his cool and going on tilt. "He played poker the same way he played golf -- he never got rattled," Link says. "And boy, we tried to rattle him. Watch his demeanor. Whenever anyone tries to rattle him, he'll always break into a smile. He'll always laugh."

That spring, Obama played about a dozen rounds. In Springfield, he and his fellow legislators would often play on weekday afternoons, after 4, at the Rail Golf Course, a forgiving layout that until 2006 was the site of an LPGA tournament. "We were the minority party at the time," Link says. "The majority party would be busy doing things, and they were not seeking our advice or looking for us. So after session, we'd sneak out and play golf."

They called it "bonus golf." On many lovely spring afternoons, Obama pressed members of his staff, including Dan Shomon, to leave work early for a quick nine holes before dark.

"We're going right now," Obama would tell Shomon.

"Chief, I've gotta work," Shomon said he'd reply. "I'm on the government payroll."

"We'll just sneak out," Obama would say. "Come on."

Shomon recalls, "When the weather was nice, there was no stopping him. He was burning to play."

During those first months in the state Legislature, Obama never traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line. Shomon persuaded his boss that he needed to tour the southernmost reaches of Illinois that June. "You have to meet people," Shomon told his boss, "and play a round of golf every day." They crossed from east of St. Louis to just west of the Indiana border.

Barack Obama's swing sequence

"Problem No. 1, it was 100 degrees," Shomon says. "There had been a drought. Our first round was a course in the metro area east of St. Louis -- a bad course, no rain; it was like we were playing on the New Jersey Turnpike."

The highlight of the trip was a fund-raising golf outing for state Sen. Jim Rea. Another round featured Jim Hart, the former St. Louis Cardinals quarterback. "The amazing thing is, he was beating me most of the time," Shomon admits, grimly. "And at golf, you should know he's a bad winner and a bad loser. When he won, I'd see him the next day, and he'd tell me, 'I played some good golf yesterday, and you didn't play any good golf yesterday.' If he lost, he'd get quiet and sulky. He doesn't like to admit it, but it's true."

In 1998, Obama finally decided to invest in a new set of clubs. At a golf discount store in the Chicago suburbs, he found a set on sale for $350. He wrote a check, but the cashier informed him that the store's check-processing company had rejected it. There was more than enough money in Obama's account, but the company had flagged Obama's South Side zip code, 60619, before the matter was resolved, recalls Shomon. "It didn't matter that his credit was perfect."

After Obama ran for Congress in 2000, his bruising defeat to Bobby Rush left his campaign deep in debt. The golf course suddenly became a forum to put that bad race behind him and help him mount a run for the United States Senate.

"I met him on the first hole,'' Steven S. Rogers, a former business owner who teaches at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, told The New York Times about a round in 2001. "By the sixth hole, he said, 'Steve, I want to run for the Senate.' And by the ninth hole, he said he needed help to clear up some debts." Rogers wrote Obama a check.


Not long after Obama announced his run for president, on the steps of the Old State House in Springfield, he landed in Las Vegas late one weekday afternoon for a campaign stop the next morning. There were only two hours of light left. Obama and three aides raced over to the Bali Hai Golf Club, just off the strip and not far from Mandalay Bay, for a quick nine holes. Obama and Marvin Nicholson, a 10-handicapper, teamed up against Robert Gibbs, a single-digit handicapper who was the campaign's communications director, and Reggie Love, the candidate's close personal aide and a former Duke University basketball and football player who was a wild boomer with his big-headed driver. On the first tee, Love announced the stakes: $10 per hole. "Whoa," Obama said. "Reggie, you must be good." They were required to take carts, though Obama insists on walking when it's an option. Gibbs played the round of his life, one-putting nearly every green. By the end of the nine holes, they had been in Vegas less than three hours, and Obama and Nicholson had each lost $30.

Obama almost always gambles a couple of bucks on golf, Nicholson says -- usually nassaus or skins. "It makes the putts matter," Nicholson says.

During the next 18 months, several times off the campaign's official schedule and without the media's knowledge, Obama would drag Gibbs, Nicholson, Love or all three with him for at least nine holes. (Nicholson estimates Obama played a dozen rounds during the campaign.) On Father's Day 2007, the group played the Olympia Fields Country Club North Course, site of the 2003 U.S. Open. On Martha's Vineyard in August 2007, early each morning as Michelle and the girls had breakfast, Obama raced a few times around Farm Neck Golf Club, a favorite of Bill Clinton's.

One of the highlights for Obama was a round at Medinah Country Club, home of the 2006 PGA Championship. This occurred in June 2008, shortly after he had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The foursome had intended to play the No. 1 course, but the pro was so excited that Obama was there, he put the group on No. 3, the championship course and site of the 2012 Ryder Cup.

"It was funny," says Nicholson. "We went out there, and I can honestly say it was the worst round of golf in my life. By the fourth hole, I was getting kind of down. And on the tee box on the fifth hole, he came up to me, put his arm around me and said, 'Hey, man, you just have to remember, we're not on the campaign trail, we're not at a town-hall meeting. We're on a golf course, and we're playing golf!' ''

"Good point," Nicholson recalls telling Obama, laughing at the memory. Though they were able to play only 16 holes, Nicholson says Obama was on his way to finishing "north of 100."

During his vacation last August, Obama played twice in Hawaii, at Luana Hills Country Club, a "Jurassic Park-like" course in the shadow of Oahu's majestic eastern mountains, and a public course, the Olomana Golf Links. He played with his high school buddies, Bobby Titcomb, Marty Nesbitt and Dr. Eric Whitaker, as well as Nicholson, Love and Gibbs.

The first day at Olomana, there was no wagering, and it was just as well. The pace of play was excruciatingly slow, and by 5:30 p.m., Obama and his pals looked at their watches on the tee at 17 and noticed they had dinner reservations with their wives in 30 minutes. They hustled off the course to shower and change. The next day, the $2 bet at Luana Hills was won easily by Obama and his three Hawaii buddies against the campaign group.

Obama managed to get in several other quick rounds, often with David Katz, the campaign's photographer and a scratch golfer who was a member of the University of Michigan golf team. In Ohio, for about 90 minutes on one blessed afternoon last June, Obama and his aides watched transfixed, on a campaign-bus television, the last four playoff holes between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open. "We were cheering them both on," Nicholson recalls. "It was such a nice break."

Before becoming president, Obama insisted they play unplugged golf: no cell phones or BlackBerrys on the course. For the front nine, it would just be Obama and the guys and golf (and usually no chatter about anything but the game). At the turn, the phones would be turned back on. Obama and the guys would grab a hot dog and a beer. Maybe a call or two would be placed, or an e-mail returned. Then on 10, the phones would be shut off again. It's hard to believe President Obama will be permitted to go wireless when playing, but he would if he could.

"Golf really is now one of his true loves," Nicholson says. "He loves to play, and he admits that he's not a great golfer. But when he becomes an ex-president, he told me the other day, he'd like to try to become a single-digit handicapper." Hope he can believe in.

Don Van Natta Jr., an investigative correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush. He is at work on Wonder Girl, a biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.