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Golf and the U.S. presidency. At first glance, these two pursuits seem entirely at odds. One is the domain of grassy greens, thoughtfully executed swings, and gentle competition. The other involves steering the world’s major superpower through endless crises, wars, and economic turmoil.

But nearly every President since William McKinley has made time for golf. Commanders-in-chief discover that a few hours on the links clears the mind, provides exercise, and offers a mental refresh from the Oval Office grind. However, presidents have also faced scrutiny when perceived as golfing too frequently or frivolously.

This article explores presidential golfers through history, analyzing their links, accomplishments, and controversies. Which presidents were passionate, capable golfers? Who viewed golf as a waste of time? And which commander-in-chief played the most rounds while occupying the White House?

The Early Adopters: Presidents Who Played Golf in the Late 1800s

Compared to today, few Americans played golf in the late 19th century. The sport was seen as an activity for the elite. But a handful of Gilded Age presidents were early golf adopters, drawn to the game during golf’s U.S. infancy.

William McKinley: The First Golfing President

President William McKinley earned a particular historical spot as the earliest golf-playing U.S. president. Shortly after the Civil War, McKinley took up the game that traced back to 15th-century Scotland.

Around 1897, President McKinley began golfing regularly at a three-hole course at the Soldiers’ Home near the White House. McKinley was known to lose balls in the woods frequently as he navigated his way around the short course. But he is credited with scoring the first presidential birdie, finishing a hole under par with a drive and two putts.

Theodore Roosevelt: Conservationist on the Course

From 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States. Well before entering the White House, he joined many intellectuals intrigued by golf as the new “sport of the century.”

Roosevelt recognized golf’s physical and mental benefits for men of influence. As an early conservationist, he supported protecting green space by developing public golf courses.

However, no evidence exists that avid outdoorsman Roosevelt continued playing after becoming President. Likely, his hands were full of trust-busting, canal building, and founding national parks.

William Howard Taft: Golf’s Biggest Fan

The 27th president, William Howard Taft, embraced many leisure pursuits—none more than golf. Long before holding office, Taft fell hard for the emerging game. He completed his first full round in 1898 at age 30.

Once President, Taft had a horse pasture south of the White House converted into a primitive golf hole. After every work meeting, he dashed outside to whack balls, inevitably dribbling them a short distance.

Taft was not an influential golfer due to poor eyesight, limited mobility from obesity, and playing infrequently. But he ranks as one of the White House’s most zealous early golf boosters.

Woodrow Wilson: On Par with America’s Golf Obsession

Woodrow Wilson grew up playing golf in South Carolina, where his family preached Presbyterian sermons on Sundays. Wilson brought his clubs with him to the New Jersey governor’s mansion and later as President in 1912.

Wilson fit America’s golf craze, which exploded from 1905 to 1930 with public course construction nationwide. He welcomed all U.S. citizens to embrace the sport he enjoyed. However, World War I required Wilson to curtail his play while overseeing war efforts.

Golf Explodes in Popularity in the Early 20th Century.

As middle-class Americans took up golf in the 1920s, future presidents caught golf fever as well. During their time in the White House, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover were enthusiastic golfers.

Warren G. Harding: Quick Rounds Forever

Before his term from 1921 to 1923, Warren Harding fell hard for golf. This raised eyebrows, as most Americans still considered golf an elite activity in the early 1920s.

But the native Ohioan was undeterred, playing frequently as President at courses near Washington, D.C. Writer Grantland Rice claimed Harding could complete 18 holes in under two hours—extremely fast for that era.

While Harding was passionate about golf, his triple-digit scores prove he was no master of the links. Skeptics later criticized his obsession with golf and poker as unpresidential.

Calvin Coolidge: Not Good, But Fast

As Warren Harding’s vice president, Calvin Coolidge caught golf fever in the early 1920s. Coolidge continued his love affair with the sport after succeeding Harding in 1923.

“Silent Cal” showed more exuberance on the course than his nickname suggests. He moved briskly between shots without worrying about score, often circling 18 holes in less than 100 strokes.

Coolidge believed golf satisfied his competitive drive without requiring athletic ability. His self-assessment was blunt: “I am not good at golf, but play because I like to play a game I am not good at.”

Herbert Hoover: Methodical Miner on the Fairway

Herbert Hoover’s engineering background shaped his rigid, analytical approach to golf. He diligently recorded stats and observations in a pocket notebook after rounds.

Hoover left the presidency unpopular after the 1929 stock market crash spiraled the economy. But he deserves praise for supporting public golf as recreation for ordinary Americans during the 1920s boom years.

Hoover later had a private course built at his California home. He designed each hole meticulously, specifying bunker placement to challenge even seasoned golfers. The course remains popular with visitors today.

Presidents Who Couldn’t Golf During Wartime

World tensions in the 1930s and 1940s forced the next two presidents—Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman—to shelve their golf games while in office. But both remained fond of the sport.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Politically Prudent from His Golf Cart

Franklin Delano Roosevelt adored golf before polio diminished his mobility in 1921. But after becoming President in 1933, he believed playing golf could look bad during the Great Depression.

FDR installed holes on the White House lawn so he could at least eye up putts and swing from his wheelchair. He rode along during others’ rounds in a golf cart, offering witty banter.

But Roosevelt refused to play himself, stating, “It would be unthinkable for me to remain on a golf course while the country was in the midst of gravest crisis since the great conflict.”

Harry S. Truman: No Golf “Until This WW2 Thing is Over”

Like FDR, Harry Truman refrained from golf as World War II raged, fearing a bad public perception. Truman was an avid golfer in the 1930s before becoming vice president.

But at a 1942 benefit tourney for war bonds, Truman pledged to reporters he was retiring his clubs “until this WW2 thing is over.” True to his word, Truman played again months after the Japanese surrendered in 1945.

Truman’s self-imposed wartime golf moratorium later earned praise. As HST said, no president could play:

“While our boys were fighting and dying on the battlefield.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: The President Who Did More for Golf Than Golf Did for Him

President Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms from 1953 to 1961 represented the closest alignment of golf and U.S. leadership until the 2000s. Ike’s White House golf habits made him the modern standard that later presidents aspired to match.

Ike’s Passion for Golf

Unlike Truman, General Eisenhower saw no issue with golfing as military head in WWII and President during the Cold War. The wartime commander knew that brief respites on the course restored his thinking and concentration.

Ike took up golf in the 1930s while stationed in Georgia. Returning home, he joined Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters tournament. He was later estimated to have played over 800 rounds as President.

Ike had a putting green installed outside the Oval Office, perfect for stress-relieving putts before meetings. He competed against pros, once defeating three Ryder Cup players while partnered with his club pro. But he also enjoyed the game with White House staff and visiting foreign dignitaries.

Balancing Golf and Presidential Duties

Eisenhower recognized golf’s political optics could be misinterpreted. He thus set strict rules on playing only when major crises allowed.

“Any man who can’t handle his problems in a few hours a day just isn’t equipped to be president,” Ike stated about weekend golf getaways. Nonetheless, he was quick to return to Washington when emergencies happened mid-round.

Ike’s ability to balance golf with affairs of state became the model for successors like John Kennedy and George H.W. Bush. But later presidents struggled to restrain their golf lust to Eisenhower’s strict regimen.

Inspiring Future Presidents

Beyond his personal golf passion, Eisenhower used his links pulpit to promote the sport widely.

Ike encouraged white country clubs to desegregate, stating African Americans should “enjoy the game of golf for its own sake.” He had public courses built on military bases, believing enlisted personnel would benefit from playing.

In all, Ike democratized and elevated golf for the average citizen. And his ability to temper golf with presidential gravitas established the gold standard for his golf-loving successors.

The Kennedy Clan Brings Golf to the 1960s White House.

In the 1960 election, young senator John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard Nixon. JFK brought a youthful vigor and love of recreation—including golf—into the presidency.

John F. Kennedy: Bad Back, but Memorable Drives

John Kennedy’s family introduced him to golf as a teen. While at Harvard, JFK played on the varsity squad. But back problems plagued him even then and intensified in office.

Rather than force long, painful walks, Kennedy accepted his physical limits. He installed a golf mat on the White House roof for short practice sessions and maintained his form with a few swings when visiting courses.

While Kennedy was no champion golfer like Ike, he did wow onlookers occasionally. Once, he split the fairway with a 250-yard drive, followed by a perfect approach that made the green as partners applauded. JFK simply smirked and said, “I should quit right here.”

Lyndon B. Johnson: Golf Detractor-in-Chief

Compared to Kennedy’s appreciation for the links, his successor Lyndon Johnson had zero use for the game. Johnson assumed an anti-elitist persona in public that shunned golf as a rich man’s hobby.

“I always wanted to meet a man lazier than myself, and I finally met him playing golf yesterday,” Johnson once quipped about the sport. Instead of golf, LBJ preferred speedboat trips to relax at his Texas ranch.

But he did have a putting green installed after Kennedy’s assassination, hoping to reduce stress. Ironically, a wayward chip shot broke Johnson’s clavicle during the 1968 campaign. So even golfing detractor LBJ was not immune from its literal perils.

Republican Golf Legends of the 1970s and 1980s

After Johnson’s departure in 1969, avid golfers again occupied the White House during the 1970s and 1980s. Standouts Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan were three GOP golf enthusiasts of that era.

Richard Nixon: Swinging Away Watergate Worries

Like many presidents since William McKinley, Richard Nixon used golf to escape the pressures of the office. But golfing also damaged Nixon’s image during the Watergate scandal that ended with his resignation.

As Vice President in the 1950s, Nixon installed a putting green at the White House, which he frequented as President. Nixon was known to decamp to his “Western White House” villa in San Clemente, California, for long West Coast golf vacations as the Watergate investigation heated up. This contributed to perceptions that Nixon was frequently shirking work for leisure.

In truth, Nixon was not a great golfer. But the sport provided an escape from the mounting Watergate tsunami that ultimately drowned his presidency.

Gerald Ford: All-American Athlete on the Course

After the darkness of Watergate, Gerald Ford brought a warm reputation and love for golf to the presidency. Ford took up golf after college football, exchanging his cleats and pads for a set of clubs.

Ford picked the game up quickly and soon played well at courses around his home state of Michigan. His natural strength and athleticism produced some epic tee shots.

As President, Ford connected with citizens through his enthusiasm for sports like golf. And he dreamed of hosting an annual “President’s Cup” golf tournament if elected to a full term. But his defeat after finishing Nixon’s term kept his vision from becoming reality.

Ronald Reagan: Golf Proved the Gipper Had Game

Ronald Reagan first teed it up as a teenager in his native Illinois. But after losing his college football roster spot to a teammate, young Dutch was aggravated enough to swear off sports for a decade.

Golf eventually drew Reagan back in the late 1930s as his acting career took off. He became a regular at California club courses to network with entertainment industry movers and shakers.

Later, California Governor Reagan installed a practice tee at the state capitol to polish his swing when time allowed. By his White House years, Reagan had the all-around skills and mental game of a solid recreational golfer.

Like Ike, Reagan recognized that moderate golf balanced hard work for presidents. And the youthful 70-year-old made sure to swing the sticks for exercise even on busy days.

George H.W. Bush: Skilled Golfer and World Golf Hall of Famer

President George H.W. Bush served as the 41st President of the United States from 1989 to 1993 and brought a textbook presidential golf swing to the White House. His smooth motion and competitive spirit honed over decades represented a dedicated golfer’s ideal late-life game.

With a best handicap of 8, Bush recorded his share of eagles over the decades. He frequented public and private courses from Maine to Florida, playing speedy rounds with partners like Arnold Palmer and country singer Kenny Rogers.

During his presidency at ages 65 to 69, Bush remained remarkably fit and flexible to produce silky, consistent shots. His play merited induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame—one of only two sitting presidents to earn that honor.

Bill Clinton: Mulligans Forever

If George H.W. Bush golfed properly, Bill Clinton did the opposite. The 42nd president constantly bent golf’s rules, taking mulligan after mulligan when playing with staff. But while unethical, Clinton’s determination to improve his flawed golf skills was admirable.

Clinton’s Love-Hate Relationship with Golf

Before taking office in 1993, Clinton was a mediocre-at-best duffer who rarely found time to play in his home state. But in Washington, Clinton grew to love analyzing and practicing the game.

He installed a fairway mat on the White House roof for hitting after work. Clinton read golf magazines devotedly and soaked up pro tips on basic mechanics.

But the career politician struggled mightily with consistency. He sprayed balls all over courses while playing abysmally one day and excellently the next. His schizophrenic play kept golf eternally challenging.

His Notorious Mulligan Habit

Clinton’s biggest golf sin was shamelessly taking do-over mulligan shots whenever he dunked a ball in the water or woods.

“Bill Clinton could take six or seven mulligans a side,” one staffer explained. “He could spend half an hour trying to hit a shot.”

Such rampant mulligan abuses frustrated partners like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She tolerated Clinton’s fudging when playing alone. But in matches, Albright demanded Clinton follow strict rules.

While such diva golf antics make golfers cringe, Clinton’s determination to improve through mulligans did show admirable persistence.

George W. Bush dove into golf with the same intensity his father displayed. But the younger Bush paired his competitive drive with an aggressive trash-talking style that reflected his emphasis on personal relationships.

Bush’s Competitive Golf Personality

Bush took golf seriously in the early 1990s while still in his forties. He joined Dallas-area country clubs to network for his future political aspirations.

Once elected governor of Texas, Bush had a batting cage installed at the governor’s mansion to practice his golf swing when not on courses.

As President, Bush played speed golf to maximize his links time. He could finish 18 holes in under 2 hours thanks to his continuous chatter aimed at unsettling partners.

Bush reveled in trash talk to disrupt the concentration of opponents and reporters covering him. He employed funny voices and sang pop songs loudly during their backswings.

His antics reflected Bush’s credo to squeeze enjoyment from every moment. He remarked, “One of the great things about golf is you can be lousy at it but keep playing it and still have a fantastic time.”

Barack Obama: The Analytical Golfer

Obama took up golf in his late thirties while balancing family life with politics. But by his White House years, Obama had developed a studious approach to the game. He endlessly analyzed and practiced techniques to improve.

Obama played more rounds than any president since Eisenhower, logging over 300 outings in eight years. Early on, scores up to 106 reflected his learning curve.

But Obama diligently strengthened his swing fundamentals. He had aides film his swing, then reviewed the footage to correct faults. Obama also read instructional articles and absorbed tips from pros he encountered in courses.

The studious President saw each round as an opportunity to refine some of his game. Obama remarked that golf provided “the only time that I’m completely distracted from work.”

Donald Trump: Golf Controversy Followed the Golf-Obsessed President

Donald Trump had been a golfer since childhood. But it was during his business career that Trump’s obsession with the game took hold. He acquired several U.S. and international golf resorts that defined his leisure brand.

Of course, Trump made golf his primary pastime upon gaining the Oval Office. He visited his courses over 300 times in four years, playing endless rounds among paying members.

This mixing of business, leisure, and politics drew rebukes. But Trump showcased his golf stamina by walking and playing 18 holes well into his seventies.

Trump also installed a state-of-the-art golf simulator in the White House. So, when not visiting his own greens, he could play virtual rounds safely indoors during cold winter.

Joe Biden: Old Dog, New Strokes?

At age 78, when he became President, Joe Biden acknowledged that golf remained part of his routine. “I don’t want to be misleading,” Biden stated upfront. “I’ll play golf.”

Biden’s Golf Game in His Late 70s

Biden has played golf since his teens, carrying an impressive 6 to 7 handicaps through age 65. But how proficiently can Biden play today on the cusp of his eighties?

At a 2021 outing, the oldest sitting President shot a credible 92. And he keeps active overall with weight training and Peloton workouts when not golfing.

However, Biden seems to walk less and ride carts more frequently. Aides claim Biden can still drive over 200 yards when warmed up. But it’s doubtful at 79 that Biden can match his former endurance playing 36 holes.

Critics contend the President should work, not golf, at his age. But supporters say Biden’s staying engaged with a favorite hobby shows vitality for the demanding job.

Who Played the Most Golf as President?

Several commanders-in-chief stand out for their White House golf totals thanks to their passion, speed of play, and length of tenure.

Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Eisenhower in the 1950s, and Nixon during Watergate unsurprisingly logged few rounds given global tensions. Other presidents like Lyndon Johnson simply detested the game.

But other golf-loving presidents did indulge their hobby frequently while in office:

  • Warren G. Harding: Golf fanatic who played two rounds weekly.
  • Calvin Coolidge: Played near-daily on trips away from Washington.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Could no longer play but snuck in swings from a cart.
  • Dwight Eisenhower: Estimated at 800 rounds in 8 years.
  • John F. Kennedy: Limited by back pain but played occasionally before crowds.
  • Gerald Ford: Athletic and competitive. Played often at home in Michigan.
  • Ronald Reagan: Regular player who used golf to destress from work.
  • George H.W. Bush: Skilled player who frequented courses in New England and Florida.
  • Bill Clinton: Played sporadically early on but became obsessed with improving.
  • George W. Bush: Reportedly played over 800 rounds while President.
  • Barack Obama: Logged 306 rounds, confirmed by press pool reports.
  • Donald Trump: Easily over 300 games at their own or visited courses.

The sheer amount of free time and accessible courses give modern presidents an advantage. But factoring in long tenure and his disciplined approach, Dwight Eisenhower likely bests other commanders-in-chief as the White House’s “golfer-in-chief.”

Conclusion

This historical tour of presidents and golf reveals much about each leader. Their relationship with the game reflected everything from sports aptitude to work ethic to moral fiber.

Some presidents like Taft and Coolidge just wanted to exercise without excelling. Fervent golfers Eisenhower and H.W. Bush used the game to bolster performance in the arena that mattered: the Oval Office.

Controversial figures like Nixon and Clinton damaged their standing further by perceived inappropriate golfing amid crises. While other presidents like Truman chose to sacrifice a beloved hobby until they had secured peace.

Overall, looking at where presidents played golf—and, importantly, when they chose not to—provides insights into their character and values. The game of golf itself cares little for status or power. But as presidential history shows, how presidents-elect play reveals what is in their hearts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Which President actually played the most rounds of golf while in office?

Ans: Recent two-term presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, likely hold the records, with over 300 confirmed rounds each over eight years. However, Dwight Eisenhower has the history for total matches in office when adjusted for his shorter two-term tenure in the 1950s.

Q2. Which President was the best golfer?

Ans: A few stand out for low handicaps and smooth, powerful swings. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush were known for their exceptional long-hitting skills. Eisenhower had a 15 handicap at his peak. But Bush Sr. played at a pro-like 8 handicaps into his sixties, so he likely deserves the “best golfer” honor.

Q3. Did presidents ever conduct work or diplomacy while golfing?

Ans: Definitely. Eisenhower signed legislation on the course. Obama sealed a debt deal he negotiated with partners in a match. And presidents discussed sensitive matters with staffers or foreign dignitaries over a round. But too much golf talk was seen as inappropriate, so presidents had to achieve the right balance.

Q4. Which President added the newest golf courses and improved access?

Ans: Presidents use their bully pulpit to inspire citizens. So perhaps Dwight Eisenhower did the most by integrating clubs, building military base courses, and convincing Americans that anyone could play.

Q5. Should presidents even play golf with all their responsibilities?

Ans: Presidents need some activity for exercise, mental sharpness, and emotional balance. Golf can fill that niche in moderation. The best presidents have disciplined golf habits that refresh their minds without distracting from the country’s needs.