From the magazineNovember 20, 2013

From Jackie To JFK

A golf pro and a Washington newsman recall their inside look at presidential golf with the Kennedys

JFK and Jackie Kennedy are joined by Tony Bradlee and caddie Ronnie Hogan during a round at Newport Country Club in September 1963.

JFK and Jackie Kennedy are joined by Tony Bradlee and caddie Ronnie Hogan during a round at Newport Country Club in September 1963.

The young golf pro, only seven months on the job, stood in his shop at Hyannisport Club and prayed to God he wouldn't make a fool of himself. The wife of the president had called that morning asking for lessons. Even now, lifetimes later, Tom Niblet sees Jacqueline Kennedy step from her white Lincoln convertible. She was beautiful, all in whites save for a color-splashed bandana around her head. As they shook hands, the pro said, "It's an honor and pleasure to meet you." She said, smiling, "Tom, you have your work cut out for you."

She moved with an athletic grace and had played some golf, though not lately. There had been the campaign. It had ended the past November, the same month she had given birth to John Jr. At 4 o'clock on July 6, 1961, on a bench at the lesson tee, Niblet talked with Jackie about her game, finally saying, "What are your objectives?"

Without hesitation and without a smile, she said, "To beat my sisters-in-law."

"A tall order," the pro said. "They've been playing all their lives and are good."

The smile returned. The pro took it to mean she was ready for the challenge.

"We started out with her hitting a few balls to warm up, and she did surprisingly well for someone who hadn't played much golf," Niblet wrote in a memoir. "She was very well coordinated and seemed to be athletically inclined. We discussed some of the basics, the grip, stance, posture, proper setup. I was surprised at her enthusiasm. We stayed on the tee for well over an hour. She left with a smile on her face and said she enjoyed the lesson and would return for another in a few days...

"Sometimes we would just hit balls, but more often we would have a playing lesson for five or nine holes. Her golf game improved, and she seemed to enjoy herself. She asked me one day what she needed to do to get better at the game. I told her she would have to spend less time playing tennis, water skiing, horseback riding—and devote more time to golf. Again, she just smiled."

This time, he knew, the smile meant no.

Today, at 81, Tom Niblet remembers seeing a couple from his golf-shop window. A man with a walking stick moved arm in arm with a woman the pro recognized even at a distance. It was August 1961. When they arrived at the shop, Jacqueline Kennedy said to her husband, "Jack, I'd like you to meet Tom Niblet."

The president took a Ben Hogan driver off the rack. He hadn't played in a while because he'd tweaked a bad back left over from his Navy days. He waggled the Hogan a few times and said it felt good to have a club in his hands again.

'JUST WALKING IN THE SUN'

What is it about presidents and golf? Ben Bradlee thinks it's escape. The former executive editor of The Washington Post and a golfing pal of John F. Kennedy says, "They're always surrounded by so damned many people. Playing golf, they're out-doors, and they're as alone as they ever get, just walking in the sun."

William Howard Taft started it, against his predecessor's advice. Teddy Roosevelt believed playing golf marked a man as the idle rich and exposed athletic oafs to ridicule (as when Taft, 5-feet-10, 340 pounds, took a 27 on a hole in Maine). Defeated for re-election in 1912, Taft spent part of the next summer in Boston at the U.S. Open watching golf history made by 20-year-old Francis Ouimet.

Since Taft, 14 of 17 presidents have played golf. In 1921, Warren G. Harding presented the Open champion's trophy to Jim Barnes in Chevy Chase, Md., a short drive from the White House. Young Franklin Roosevelt won a club championship at Campobello Golf Club on Campobello Island in New Brunswick. Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton could shoot in the 80s. Barack Obama escapes basketball for golf.

Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter didn't play, but Dwight Eisenhower more than made up for their absences. During his two terms, Eisenhower played or practiced on perhaps 1,000 days. He built a putting green behind the Oval Office. He played so often at Augusta National that he came to wish ill of a tree along the 17th fairway and at a members' meeting in 1956 suggested the thing be cut down before it could leap from its roots one more time to bat down another of his otherwise perfect tee shots. Poor Ike. There the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, conqueror of the Third Reich, liberator of Europe, and president of the United States learned the limitations of his power. Augusta's club chairman, Clifford Roberts, adjourned the meeting before anyone could second Ike's suggestion.

As the ultimate war hero, Eisenhower was invulnerable to criticism about the game. But John Kennedy, while campaign-ing for Ike's job in 1960, decided it was burden enough to be young, handsome, wealthy, Catholic and a Democrat. He couldn't be seen as a golfer, too. The irony was, he hid a game worth showing off. Paul Harber, a reporter specializing in Cape Cod golf, says the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been blackballed in the early 1920s by a club near Boston that practiced a principle "known as NINA: No Irish Need Apply." So Joe and Rose Kennedy went to Hyannisport, and their children grew up playing golf.

Harber also reported that the club dismissed its pro, Walter Hall, because of his friendship with the Kennedys. In late 1960, one applicant for the job was the pro/superintendent at a raggedy nine-hole course on the Cape's south shore. Tom Niblet was 31 years old.

'I JUST LIKE TO BE WITH BIG HITTERS'

Niblet always knew the president was on the way when he saw the Marine helicopter pass over the golf course toward the Kennedy compound. Soon enough, a phone installed by the White House would ring in the bag room. The president himself called to ask if the first tee was open. Around 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, Kennedy arrived carrying golf shoes, slacks and a shirt. By habit, he changed in the bag room.

"Tom, are you busy?" he said.

"No, sir," Niblet said.

"Get your sticks," Kennedy said, "and we'll knock it around for a few holes."

Niblet drove first, to a ridge down the middle, 240 yards. An old friend of the president, Chuck Spalding, hit it 10 yards past the pro. Here, Kennedy put his driver away and took a 5-wood, satisfied with 175 yards. Laughing, the president said, "I never wanted to be a big hitter. I just like to be with big hitters."

Niblet wrote of Kennedy: "I was impressed with his athletic ability. It was well known that he was still having problems with his back from his war injuries and had to wear a back support strapped around his waist. He had problems teeing the ball up and picking it out of the hole. But his swing was smooth and rhythmic, and you could tell he knew how to execute the golf shots. He swung the club cautiously, but in spite of that he still got good distances from his woods and long irons. All in all, he was a much better player than I had expected him to be."

In an hour and 20 minutes, their first time together, the pro and president played nine holes. "When we were coming up the 18th fairway," Niblet wrote, "I thanked him for inviting me to play, and how much I enjoyed being out there with him. He said, 'I enjoyed it, also, Tom. We'll do it many more times.' "

That day was Aug. 17, 1963.

They never played again.

JACKIE'S PASTURE

In his book Conversations with Kennedy, Bradlee wrote that playing golf with the president was "always a harrowing experience." It usually required fancy clothes he didn't have, "like golf shoes, for openers." Spectators gathered and were sure "to laugh when you shank the ball." Then there were the anxiety-raising Secret Service men, "all around you, carrying guns in dummy golf bags."

Today, at 89, Bradlee says Kennedy was "competitive as hell, and had just a beautiful swing. He could hit it a ton, but, like all of us, often had no idea where it was going." They might have played only a dozen times in their five years together in Washington. "Me in the news business and him in the president business—unless your name was Eisenhower, there wasn't much time for golf."

JFK

The White House diary at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum shows that twice in the spring of 1961 the Kennedys had the Bradlees as guests at Glen Ora, an estate in the Virginia countryside. The May 21 diary entry: "The President and Benjamin Bradlee hit golf balls on the lawn at Glen Ora."

Bradlee says, "'On the lawn?' They must be talking about Jackie's pasture." Tom Niblet's student had become a course superintendent, sort of, and as a birthday gift for her husband had transformed a pasture into a golf course, sort of. "It was big enough to hit drivers on," Bradlee says, "but all hills and rocks with a swamp in there."

A farmer with a tractor and a mower whacked wild-growth grass from more than a foot high to four inches. In the four corners of the pasture, the grass was cut to two inches to serve as greens and tees; no putting there, mostly 5-irons chipped toward a hole gouged out of the dirt. The participating masochists decided each hole was a par 9. The president held the Jackie's Pasture course record at 37, one over par.

There were presidential prerogatives, most built on impatience. "Gimmes inside 10 feet," Bradlee says. Nor did Kennedy fret over bad shots. Barely had a ball headed for water—"Bah-stad!"—before he teed up the next. "He was always fun to play with," Bradlee says, certainly when their running conversation morphed into a Kennedy mock-TV commentary on his game: "With barely a glance at the packed gallery, he whips out a 4-iron and slaps it dead to the pin."

Once, at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, probably playing for their usual 10 cents a hole, Bradlee hit "the longest damned drive of my life." Such was the majestic arc of its extended flight that Kennedy said, "Benjy, I never saw anyone hit a ball that far on this hole. You must be hungry."

Bradlee says, "But it went so far, and a little off line, that I couldn't find it. And Kennedy wouldn't help me look for it. He played fast, anyway, and he'd topped his drive or something, and wouldn't even slow down to look for mine."

Laughing now. "Musta pissed him off."

It was Sept. 15, 1963.

The last time they played.

AN AWFUL SILENCE

During his lunch hour on Nov. 22, 1963, Bradlee was browsing through a bookstore when all turned to silence. "Then a whisper, 'Kennedy,'" Bradlee says. "Then, 'shot.'"

That day, Tom Niblet and three of his brothers were on the road driving home from a hunting trip in New Hampshire. They passed a little post office that had its flag at half-staff and wondered what that was about.