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Obama and golf: Par for the course for presidents

By Martin Davis, Special to CNN
updated 11:26 AM EST, Fri January 27, 2012
President Warren Harding, left, gets ready to golf on the Piping Rock Golf Links on Long Island, New York, in 1921. He's with Howard Whitney, second from left, president of the U.S. Golf Association; financier Percy Pyne; and industrialist J. Leonard Replogle. President Warren Harding, left, gets ready to golf on the Piping Rock Golf Links on Long Island, New York, in 1921. He's with Howard Whitney, second from left, president of the U.S. Golf Association; financier Percy Pyne; and industrialist J. Leonard Replogle.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Martin Davis: Mitt Romney thinks President Obama plays golf too often
  • But U.S. presidency and golf have a long, traditional association, Davis says
  • Davis says that Woodrow Wilson played the most; John F. Kennedy played the best
  • Golf bug is clearly bipartisan, he says, and there is golf royalty among presidents

Editor's note: Martin Davis is the editor and publisher of The American Golfer and a regular contributor on golf history on the Golf Channel. He has written or edited more than 20 books on golf, including biographies on Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus. His latest book is "America's Gift to Golf: Herbert Warren Wind on the Masters," and for release in August, "The Ryder Cup: Golf's Grandest Event."

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney has made much of President Barack Obama playing what he considers an inordinate amount of golf. I've even read blogs likening it to Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Perhaps, and then again, perhaps not.

Clearly, there has been a long association with the ancient game and the American presidency. In fact, Obama is the 15th of the last 18 presidents to play golf. Not only is he a hugely avid golfer, but a pretty fair one, too. As far as how much time he spends on the links, his annual rate of play is about the same as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with President Bill Clinton right on their heels.

It's clear, the presidency and our great game have quite a thing going. And it seems the golf bug is bipartisan.

Martin Davis
Martin Davis

Many people fondly recall Eisenhower and his utter passion for the game. During his presidency, he played some 210 rounds at Augusta National, the home of the Masters, many with his good friend Arnold Palmer. Such was his fervor for the game, he even had a putting green installed on the White House lawn.

But Ike didn't play the most golf among our presidents, nor was he the best.

The honor for the most golf played goes to Woodrow Wilson. It's said that he played at least a few holes each day -- even in the snow -- reportedly logging more than 1,000 rounds in his two terms. Maybe that's why the League of Nations failed.

The best presidential golfer is widely acknowledged to be John F. Kennedy, usually shooting around 80. But suffering from Addison's disease and a bad back, Kennedy didn't play much while he was in office. He spent more time in his Oval Office rocking chair than on the links.

Clinton, a passionate golfer whose foundation is associated with the recent Humana Classic in Palm Springs, California, was best known for taking Mulligans, a somewhat extra-legal do-over shot in a friendly match. The press even coined a term for them -- "Billigans."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt often played at his family's summer home in Maine before he was stricken with polio. A good golfer who never played while in office, he nevertheless made his mark on the game with his public works projects that led to the development of many public access golf courses, including one of the very best in the country, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, New York, the site of two recent U.S. Opens. Roosevelt left quite a lasting legacy on the game.

Lyndon Johnson played the game, warning his playing partners that it wasn't proper to beat the president. Most significantly, he used his outings on the links to secure votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The best athlete as president? Easy: Gerald Ford, a former All-American football center at the University of Michigan. An avid golfer, right after Jimmy Carter was sworn in replacing him, Ford immediately flew to Palm Springs to play golf with Bob Hope in his Pro Am just hours later.

There's more: President William Howard Taft, our 27th president, was so obsessive about the game he played in exhibition matches with top-notch players after his term of office; President Calvin Coolidge, who never did get the hang of the game, left his clubs behind when he left the White House; President Richard Nixon, always seemingly politically motivated, was said to have taken up the game to cozy up to Eisenhower and remain on the ticket as his running mate for a second term; and President Ronald Reagan, who was known to putt down the aisle of Air Force One into the section reserved for the national press.

There is golf royalty associated with our presidents. George H.W. Bush's grandfather, George Herbert Walker, a former U.S. Golf Association president, donated the Walker Cup, the trophy for the prestigious international biannual amateur team matches. And Bush's father, Prescott, was also smitten with the game, serving as president of the golf association as well and officiating at a number of Bobby Jones' matches.

Continuing the family tradition, George W. Bush, our 43rd president, is also an avid player, currently sporting a 12 handicap. But in his presidency, as a sign of respect for the U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said he decided to stop playing golf while they were in harm's way.

After all, a president has to know his priorities.

While our game is compelling and can be all consuming, it is sometimes incorrectly perceived, more than other presidential leisure activities, as a rich man's game. So maybe, just maybe, the current occupant of the Oval Office should curtail his golf while our troops are still in harm's way and the national unemployment rate is more than 8.5%.

As with our other golfing presidents, there's plenty of time for golf later.

Besides, he'll never have to wait for a starting time.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Martin Davis.

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