Quiet, Please

March 05, 2008

A PRESIDENT AND A KING: Eisenhower and Arnold Palmer together in 1965, a year before Ike surprised Arnold at home in Latrobe, PA., on Arnie's 37th birthday.

Little did those who elected him realize that the arrival of Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth in Washington would shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. We're talking about golf -- specifically that the Best Golfer in Congress changed from red to blue, and the Democratic team has a new anchor for the annual Ryder Cup-formatted First Tee fund-raiser that's seen by some as a harbinger of future elections.

Yarmuth's plus-0.5 USGA Handicap Index boosts him above the team's longtime leaders Mark Udall, known for having the best-looking swing in Congress but a no-show in last fall's First Tee Congressional Challenge because of his U.S. Senate run, and super-competitive California Rep. Joe Baca, who's seeking rules changes to allow the awarding of Congressional Gold Medals to Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer.

This is the second time we've ranked the 200 best and most avid golfers in Washington, D.C., and roughly half of them this time, including No. 1-ranked Tony Russo, are senior-level lobbyists. It's worth noting that Yarmuth came to Congress from publishing and editing a golf magazine, Kentucky Golfer. He's also a Golf Digest course-ratings panelist.

Udall, who hasn't posted a score for handicap purposes since October 2006, when his Index climbed from 0.5 to 2.5, is No. 2 among elected officials with Baca, who went from a 1.9 to a 2.5 last December when we verified handicaps. The top Republican is soon-to-retire Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), a 2.8 at Baltusrol Golf Club.

Notably absent from this ranking are a few D.C. names we included in 2005 who were subsequently rocked by scandal and criminal convictions -- Jack Abramoff, Tony Rudy and David Safavian come to mind. Many golfers who were ranked previously as elected officials or White House staffers -- Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Mike Meece and Dan Bartlett, for example -- are now consultants and lobbyists.

The nature of golf in Washington has changed since 2005, and we aren't talking about a building boom of upscale daily-fee courses in Maryland and Virginia. Ethics legislation passed in 2007 has curtailed the kind of "let-me-explain-my-issue" rounds that enabled congressional staffers to play in groups co-hosted by lobbyists on Friday afternoons. As a result of a ban imposed on gifts and services, lobbyists have to pay thousands of dollars to play in elected officials' fund-raisers to spend time with them on the golf course -- hardly a bonding opportunity.

"The system has been prostituted," says Jim McCool, a lobbyist for the Southern Company, whose sentiments are echoed (off the record) by scores more. As another lobbyist said, "We can't pay to take congressmen out anymore, but they can call and ask us to pay to play in their fund-raisers. That doesn't seem quite right." Which isn't to say that lobbyists, Senators and Congressmen aren't still playing together at lobbyists' clubs -- it's just that reimbursement checks must be written.

In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, there's a greater-than-ever hesitancy among golfers to admit they play. Abramoff is the former high-powered lobbyist who pleaded guilty in 2006 to charges involving fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Luxury golf junkets to Scotland were among the things that got him in trouble.

For now, mum's the word among many D.C. golfers. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime player whose 14.5 Index hasn't been updated since 2000, declined to approximate his handicap, saying he hasn't been playing enough to have one. Same for Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.). Freshman Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), a member of the Republican "Ryder Cup" team, also declined to reveal a handicap. Newt Gingrich, a proud 47-handicapper as a new golfer in 2005, doesn't admit to playing, either.

Many who have official handicaps say they could never play to them. "If anyone picked me as a partner based on my 4.7, he'd be sorely disappointed," says Tennessee freshman Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga and member at The Honors Course. Corker displaced Nevada colleague John Ensign (6.5) as best in the Senate. Also in single digits are Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss (7.0), Delaware Democrat Joe Biden (8.4), whose presidential campaign contributed to a recent climb in his handicap, and New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg (9.1).

We haven't seen President Bush playing golf in a while, but he's still considered a 15. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who's about a 16, weighed his decision to run while playing golf in Hawaii in 2006. Another 16 is Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe.

And what about that First Tee contest as a harbinger? The Democrats won in 2007. "That doesn't bode well," says perennial Republican competitor Zach Wamp of Tennessee, who fantasizes about being on the Golf Channel's "Big Break" competition. "It's bad enough," he says, "to lose to them in golf."