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New World Order: Hail to the Chiefs as Congressional stop looms

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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A member at Augusta National, Dwight Eisenhower was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. (AP)  
A member at Augusta National, Dwight Eisenhower was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. (AP)  

This is taking Numero Uno to a whole different level.

As everybody knows, it's presidential protocol for the brass band to break out in a rendition of "Hail to the Chief" when the nation's leader shows up at a public place, but what about when it's hailing golf balls?

This week, the PGA Tour visits Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., a historic venue that hosted the 2011 U.S. Open and has long been regarded as a jewel of the Mid-Atlantic area. It's certainly had its share of bright and shiny members over the years, to be sure.

Back when the game was still seeking a popular foothold, Congressional included as members William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding. Even today, the most powerful men in the world occasionally drop by to whack a few balls around, wishing they could do likewise with a titanium stick to members of the opposing party.

As the game began to take off in the U.S. a century ago, a series of presidents have hauled out clubs on occasion as their avocation. In fact, according to Golf Digest, 15 of the past 18 presidents have been golfers and a handful have been decent players, capable of breaking 90, or even 80.

With the AT&T National set to be played at Congressional, the obvious New World Order list for this week is a rendering of the Beltway belters -- our perceived pecking order of the best Commanders-in-Chief.

In short, who could really swing the presidential timber?

Sure, this is a subjective list, since even today, when presidents tee it up, it's mostly a private affair, conducted away from the prying eyes of the public. This particular top-10 list, unlike some others, takes more than just presumed skill into account -- it also includes huge bonus points for the impact these particular leaders made on growing the game while in the public eye.

So, yes, Dwight David Eisenhower might not have been able to land a shot on Pennsylvania Avenue if you gave him a bucket of balls, but talent isn't the only modus for POTUS, is it?

Although there's always that temptation. In 1995, Bob Hope and tour standout Scott Hoch played in a pro-am round in Palm Springs with Gerald Ford, George Bush and Bill Clinton.

"Clinton had the best score, Ford the most errors and Bush the most hits," Hope said in his famous deadpan delivery. "Me, I cheated better than ever."

There is no fudging or eraser work hereabouts. Here they are, regardless of any divisive party affiliation -- or upon which side of the ball they stand.

Not long ago, some candidates believed being outed as an avid golfer was a bad thing. In fact, before the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy nearly recorded a hole-in-one and said, "In less than an hour, word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get into the White House."

Plenty have, before and since. Which isn't a bad thing at all.

10. Gerald Ford | 1974-77
Privately, Gerald Ford was said to have loathed his reputation as the Chop-In-Chief, but given that Bob Hope made every foul ball into a punchline, Ford had to grin and bear it. Ford, a college football standout at Michigan, certainly had some athletic skills, though he is more often remembered for the pratfalls, headers and missteps that helped launch comedian Chevy Chase's career. Ford took a rather forgettable lunge at the ball, but often broke 90, making him better than the average hack. He played in Hope's tour event in Palm Springs, occasionally sending a few fans scrambling for cover with an errant shot, each of which provided Hope with even more comedic fodder. Cracked Hope: "I've gotten a lot of mileage from my Jerry Ford jokes. So it's fun to introduce him at dinners with lines like, 'You all know Jerry Ford. One of my most prized possessions is the Purple Heart I received for all the golf I've played with him.' " In his own inimitable way, whether it was intentional or not, Ford made it OK to be an average chop who loved the game, regardless.

9. Barack Obama | 2009-present
He's taken some public-relations hits for playing while the country's economy has spiraled down the commode, but the guy deserves some leisure hours of his own, no? Obama, a former high school basketball player who swings left-handed, occasionally finds time to steal away for rounds at Andrews Air Force Base, located a short drive from the White House. Say this for the guy -- at least he's mostly avoiding the richer private hangouts like Congressional, which doubtlessly would only get him in even more trouble in the court of public opinion. Obama's got an athletic swing and keeps himself in shape, and when he leaves office -- be it in roughly five months or five more years, he aspires to play a lot more often.

8. Warren Harding | 1921-23
A member at Congressional, he used to slip out the door of the White House and hit balls on the lawn, as his trusty dog retrieved them for him. Harding also took a few trips to Florida to play over the years, but his health wasn't great toward the end of his presidency. During a visit to Cocoa Beach, Fla., in 1923, he reportedly complained to a presidential aide about feeling tired on the course. It was suggested that Harding might feel better if he played fewer holes, the president said, "Hell, if I can't play 18 holes, I won't play at all." The Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco, site of several PGA Tour events over the years, was named in his honor in 1925, two years after he died in that city. In fact, in 1923, he began complaining of chest pain and nausea after playing golf in Canada, and he abruptly died a week later.

Bill Clinton began playing golf as a child and his love for the game continues even after his presidency. (Getty Images)  
Bill Clinton began playing golf as a child and his love for the game continues even after his presidency. (Getty Images)  
7. Woodrow Wilson | 1913-1921
Wilson moves up the chart based on perseverance and volume alone. For a man who took up the game a bit later than most, Wilson certainly made up for the early drought. A bicyclist who had to give up that avocation when he was elected, he took up golf and is credited -- if that's the proper term -- with recording the most rounds of golf of any president, with more than 1,000, or almost one round every other day. During the winter, Wilson practiced and played with golf balls painted black, so he could find them more easily in the snow. He was preceded in office by Taft and succeeded by Harding, so in terms of the presidential golden age, this was it.

6. Bill Clinton | 1993-2001
If there was any lingering doubt about Clinton's love for the game, it was doused this spring when he signed on as the figurehead of the reconstituted Bob Hope Classic in Palm Springs. Clinton began playing the game as a kid in Arkansas, and while serving as governor, used to tee off at dawn to get some holes in before reporting to work. Getting an actual grip on his level of skill was tough, because he hit so many extra shots, some called him "Billigan." When Clinton was still in office, he played a round with sportswriter Rick Reilly, who hilariously wrote: "He entered the White House as a 16 handicap, but I'd heard he was down to a 13 now, which would put him in a league with our finest golfing president, John Kennedy. I'd also heard that the 13 was phonier than Cheez Whiz and that he would probably go out and shoot himself a radio station -- a Magic 102 or a Zoo 105."

5. George H. W. Bush | 1989-93
A slew of PGA Tour players have teed it up with Bush, and they've all come away with the same impression. "He plays fast," Phil Mickelson said. And fairly well, too. At one point, Bush was said to have carried a handicap of around 11, making him one of the best players ever to inhabit the White House. A former pilot in WW II, he had some unusually good coordination. He's certainly been no stranger to the game since leaving office and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame a year ago. His forebears on the Walker side of the family started the Walker Cup matches against Great Britain and Ireland, and grandfather George Herbert Walker was a former president of the U.S. Golf Association. Father Prescott Bush also served a stint as USGA president.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt | 1933-45
Whereas casual-golfer cousin Teddy didn't want to be painted as a man who played an elitist sport, FDR was an unabashed golfer before polio essentially ended any physical activity. According to one report, he was the club champion at a course in New Brunswick before he had to put the sticks away for good. His work-projects program in the Depression led to the construction or renovation of roughly 600 courses in the States, making FDR a hugely impactful figure in the game. One of the New Deal courses was none other than Bethpage Black, a two-time U.S. Open site on Long Island.

Not many golfers played as well as John F. Kennedy before a back injury slowed his game down. (AP)  
Not many golfers played as well as John F. Kennedy before a back injury slowed his game down. (AP)  
3. William Howard Taft | 1909-13
He gets a rousing golf clap for being the first president to admit to playing the sport, though some suspected that Teddy Roosevelt liked the game, but thought it would send the wrong signal to the proletariat masses if he engaged in such an elitist game. Taft was a big guy from Ohio who took a mighty lash ... sort of like that chubby kid from Columbus who eventually won 18 majors. Taft was a bogey golfer, but he was certainly smitten and written reports from exactly a century ago noted how he celebrated the completion of the Connecticut Avenue Bridge, which allowed easy access to Chevy Chase Country Club. Taft not only was the honorary chairman of the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline, he witnessed parts of Francis Ouimet's upset victory, still considered the game's seminal moment in the States. Taft was quoted in a story in the 1911 edition of American Golfer: "My advice to the middle-aged and older men, who have never played golf, is to take it up ... and that men and women of sedentary habits here will be enabled to get this splendid form of exercise." There's a sentiment that still seems applicable today.

2. John F. Kennedy | 1961-63
JFK was a Democrat who intentionally tried to avoid being labeled a serious golfer, lest he be compared to his predecessor in office, who happens to rank No. 1 on this list. In fact, according to reports, Kennedy and his staffers referred to Gen. Eisenhower as the "duffer in chief." Compared to Kennedy, most of us would fall into the hacker category. Before a serious back injury slowed him in middle age, Kennedy was a single-digit player who routinely broke 80. A set of his MacGregor clubs were purchased in 1996 by Arnold Schwarzenegger at auction for a staggering $772,500, and included a monogrammed bag. The Governator was married to Kennedy's niece, Maria Shriver.

1. Dwight Eisenhower | 1953-61
In an era where the entire country is swimming in oceans of red ink, can we imagine the outcry if a sitting president today used funds to install a putting green on the White House lawn? Yet a half-century ago, that's precisely what Eisenhower did -- and he got our money's worth, too. Eisenhower had the bug worse than any other president, as the game was beginning to bloom in the television era of the early 1960s, he was at the fore. A member at Augusta National, Eisenhower was such a fixture, he had a tree and a cabin named after him at the club. According to legend, he logged 800 rounds during his eight years in office, many at the home of the Masters. Ike was no shark, but he broke 80 a few times. A five-star guy for growing the game, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.

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