Why Obama Should Play More

January 21, 2013

President Barack Obama on a holiday golf outing in December of 2010.

Now that President Obama has begun his second term, let's hope he feels free to play more golf.

In fact, let's encourage him.

Not having to worry about re-election should be liberating. The public-opinion hit that golf is supposed to bring for the chief executive -- and has him at 112 rounds in his first four years -- won't matter as much.

There is also an argument -- though not one he can make himself -- that playing golf will make him a better president.

It would promote his physical health. Mr. Obama may already be the fittest president in history (two words: full-court basketball), but photos show the last four years have aged him at the usual accelerated presidential pace. Perhaps he will be able politically to parlay his own record on health care with Bill Clinton's Health Matters Initiative and accept the former president's invitation to play in next year's Humana Challenge pro-am.

Seeing that nothing else has worked, golf could become an improved way to bridge the current ideological chasm with Republicans. Perhaps the round with Speaker John Boehner in 2011 didn't amount to much, but playing less-staged rounds with other GOP heavyweights such as Lindsey Graham (who has a 13.4 Handicap Index), Tom Coburn (12.2 index) and Orrin Hatch (with a 20 handicap according to Golf Digest) could lead to increased trust and compromise.

Playing more would help the quality of decision making. A president in particular needs a peaceful place to let the mind work in that subconscious state we are learning is often the seat of problem-solving and creativity. "The presidency is a prison," John Dickerson, political director for CBS News and a former White House correspondent, recently wrote in Slate. "Even when you are 'having fun,' you do so in quotation marks. The golf course is one of the few places a president can escape the pressures and physical limitations of the office."

As Clinton told Don Van Natta Jr. in his book First Off the Tee, "One of the reasons I always liked golf is because the rest of my life is going at breakneck speed and everything had to be done fast and this is the place where I had to slow down. And I think the final reason is -- you literally can't think about anything else. If you do, you can't hit a shot."

The humbling game provides perspective, which might be the most profound pull on presidents and why, despite the political liability, 14 of the last 18 have been golfers. As Van Natta wrote, instead of hearing "Yes, Mr. President" yet again, "the game says no."

Selfishly, as a lover of the game, the big reason I would like to see the president play more is not because of what it can do for him, but what it can do for golf. A president who avidly plays is validation for the game as a worthwhile pastime. Cultural icons such as Michael Jordan, Bill Murray and Willie Nelson all have broadened golf's demographic. But presidents can have the greatest effect.

America's first golf boom was helped along in the late 1910s and early 1920s by two consecutive presidents bitten by the bug, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding. In the late 1950s Dwight Eisenhower's obsession with golf laid the foundation for the Arnold Palmer Boom of the 1960s.

The game is due an infusion of passion from the White House. Although President Clinton provided some nice momentum, the second President Bush temporarily set the game back when he announced in 2003 he would no longer play as President because "playing golf during a war sends the wrong signal." While golf as a referendum on patriotism has lost traction, the struggling economy has exacerbated the American time-crunch, causing participation to drop. Seeing presumably the busiest man in America on the course would send a good message.

Certainly the president is authentic as a golfer. He's not country club -- more contemporary casual -- but judging by his occasionally spied air swings, he clearly loves the game and is hungry to improve.

Importantly, his style on the course helps his image as a leader. By all accounts Mr. Obama is competitive but always stays admirably cool, and counts them all. Golf seems to be an affirmation, or even a conduit, to his best self. There is no better endorsement for the game.

So let's encourage the president to set the Obama Counter spinning over the next four years. Let's support him in the quest to get really good. The better he gets, the better for golf.