Founding Father

By Ron Sirak Photos by AP Photo
November 01, 2009

Arnold watches Ike sink a 50-footer at Merion's 17th in 1964.

Among the many societal impacts of World War II -- the commingling of jazz, blues, folk, country and swing in the cultural potpourri of the barracks produced rock 'n' roll, for example -- was the fact that a military economy produced a more industrial America. And this created something working people never had before in the United States -- leisure time.

So as post-war Americans moved from the farms to the factories and those already in the cities migrated to freshly-built suburban housing tracts, new outlets for free time were sought. There were Sunday drives in the car, which most people now owned, and factory leagues in bowling and softball. People purchased the new device called the television and watched Milton Berle -- Uncle Miltie.

This was also the time when the masses discovered golf, taking it from the country club to the public course. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "Something is happening and you don't know what it is, do you Bobby Jones." The country club game was going common, and the transition had some key players aiding and abetting the move. Key among those was President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As with any paradigm shift in a culture, this change in direction resulted from a fortuitous confluence of events. Luck, said Branch Rickey, the visionary who integrated professional baseball by giving Jackie Robinson a contract immediately after World War II, is the residue of design.

Just when the hunger for leisure-time activities grew, a dynamic son of the people came along -- Arnold Palmer. And the biggest recruiting tool that existed for Arnie's Army was that new toy called television, which was just beginning to bring sports into the American living room in significant quantity. The swashbuckling Palmer and TV were a perfect marriage.

But there was one other ingredient often overlooked when deconstructing the success of this stew: President Eisenhower. The induction Nov. 2 of Eisenhower into the World Golf Hall of Fame is an appropriate recognition of one of the game's greatest ambassadors. Eisenhower was the first First Golfer of which Americans became acutely aware, and because of that he helped create many new golfers.

If Ike was the right political leader for the time -- a military hero to guide the transition to a post-war economy -- he was also a quietly articulate and effective spokesman for golf. His passion for the game, which was communicated to the public through countless photos and articles about his golfing exploits, helped validate the sport as a meaningful activity.

According to a study by Golf Digest of his daily itinerary, from his inauguration Jan. 20, 1953 until he left office Jan. 20, 1961, Eisenhower played nearly 800 rounds and had more than 1,000 days in which he either played or practiced. Talk about a passion for golf. A photo of Ike with a golf club in his hand was invaluable advertising for the game.

When Eisenhower had vacation time he was usually off to Augusta National, where he was an 18 handicap. But he also was able to squeeze in a round at Burning Tree, outside D.C., or Newport, Cypress Point or some other great venue. He was the president, after all. The day after Palmer won his first Masters in 1958, he played Augusta National with Ike.

And when Eisenhower couldn't get to the course, he would work on his short game on the south lawn of the White House. In retirement, he continued to play at Augusta National and near his farm in Gettysburg, Pa. His golfing companions included Palmer and the comedian Bob Hope, both of whom are honored at the World Golf Hall of Fame, where Ike now joins them.

Eisenhower embodied the exact passion that possessed the new recruits to the game. He loved golf. At one time, while President of the United States, Eisenhower played golf 18 consecutive days. The only thing that slowed him down was a heart attack in 1955 and a mild stroke in 1957, and then only briefly. By all accounts, he was never ashamed of his love for the game, a love he seems to share with the current President, Barack Obama.

There were, at that time, no grow-the-game programs like the First Tee or junior programs like those supported by the LPGA and USGA. Still, golf grew like never before. Arnold and Ike and TV were the three-headed monster that drove this growth.

Some of the problems that now impede the game's growth did not exist in the 1950s. There were accessible, affordable venues. And pace of play was not an issue. New players had not yet been taught pre-shot routines that can be measured by a three-minute egg timer. They just played.

People flocked to the course in the 1950s -- and they came back because the experience was enjoyable. In the Western Pennsylvania steel mill town where I grew up, Sylvan Heights Golf Club, the municipal course, had a $2 all-day green fee. Castle Hills Golf Course, a privately owned pubic course, had a $40-a-year junior membership.

When we look back on the growth of golf in the United States, it is the decade and a half right after World War II that leaps out. This was when golf became a game of the people. And it is perhaps that period we need to study more closely now to figure out how to start growing the game again.

Perhaps there should be a special exhibit in the World Golf Hall of Fame that honors the three great growers of the game in America: That swashbuckler named Palmer, that President called Eisenhower and that promotional tool known as television. It was a perfect marriage.

The induction Nov. 2 of President Eisenhower into the World Golf Hall of Fame was more than symbolic: It was a celebration of one of the game's most important figures. If Ike helped save democracy as a military leader, he also helped democratize golf as a political leader. All of us who love the game owe him a deep and sincere debt of gratitude. And now, at the Hall of Fame, there is a place where Ike's contributions will always be remembered.