War, recession, partisanship and a lobbyist scandal turned the sport into a four-letter word in the nation's capital, but a handful of congressional golf nuts and the looming Obama-Boehner match could be game-changers
John Yarmuth, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky and a low-handicap liberal who has passed along golf tips on The Colbert Report, springs to his feet, grips an imaginary club and hunches over in a scrunched-up stance, wrists cocked far forward. "Frankly, I don't know how he hits it at all," says Yarmuth, sitting back down on the couch in his office in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C. "He" is John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is also Speaker of the House and Yarmuth's antipole on most political issues. But Yarmuth wants to make it clear that this is not political smackdown. "John gets it around really, really well," says Yarmuth, "and he's a competitor."
Still, stance-imitation borders on insult, and one might hope that Boehner, a skilled verbal counterpuncher, would offer a snappy comeback, perhaps a jab at the Democrat's spendthrift attitude on $10 Nassaus. But Boehner declined an interview request to discuss his golf game, or even golf in general, something that now seems to be set-in-stone policy.
Several of Washington's other power brokers also refused to speak, including the Power-Broker-in-Chief, who, despite being an ardent proselytizer of pickup hoops, is reticent to admit that from time to time he also pulls out his sticks. Representatives for Obama also kindly turned down an SI request to shoot the President's bag.
Yes, over the past year both men have kept their respective golfing joneses under wraps (like their cigarette smoking) in keeping with a hush-hush atmosphere that surrounds the golf scene in Washington. That represents a sea change from the days when Dwight (I'll Be Back After 18) Eisenhower seemed to worry as much about his incurable slice as he did about the Soviet Union's incursions into Eastern Europe.
But all that is about to change.
After much hemming and hawing about getting together on the links, Obama has finally invited Boehner to tee it up, and the Speaker quickly accepted. They could've picked a less busy date on the golf calendar -- Saturday, June 18, which corresponds with Moving Day at the U.S. Open at Congressional -- but, hey, when you're two of the most powerful men in the free world, you play when you want, right? And, one supposes, where you want, though at press time there had been no site selected for Battle O-Bo.
Wherever it happens, the match is going to have an unconventional look since the President is a straight southpaw and Boehner is a righthanded swinger who putts from the left side. Pundits are no doubt already in search of ways to conflate their playing with their politics. Obama started his ball right, but, sure enough, back it came to the left. Boehner's lefty putting routine suggests room for compromise. We must assume that negotiations for strokes have already started. Boehner is listed as a 7.9 and Obama a 17 in Golf Digest's annual recap of Washington's power players, which means Obama should get nine shots. But will he take them knowing he'll have to explain to Fox News why he's on the dole?
The mind boggles, too, at the fervid behind-the-scenes negotiations that must be going on to round out that foursome. [Editors' note: NBC is reporting that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio will partner with Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden with Obama.] Well-known pros are out for that weekend, but Battle O-Bo could be an old-timers deal -- you got Jack, I'll take Arnie. Or maybe a reach-out for the women's vote -- you got Lorena, I'll take Annika. But to make it palatable for an American public facing 9.1% unemployment, the best guess is that Battle O-Bo will have to come across as a work day. Automatic two-down presses and fix health care on the back nine.
The best guess is that the foursome will be politically balanced. Boehner has at his disposal two low-handicap conservative Republicans in Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee (2.1) and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina (4). Two other Southern senators are also fine players -- Georgia's Saxby Chambliss and North Carolina's Richard Burr, 7.4 and 7.5, respectively. The most obvious choice for Obama is his Vice President, since Joe Biden is a fine player with a handicap last listed at 6.3. The Boehner camp may object, however, on the grounds that Biden talks so much it would be like having two teammates.
Unless the President decides to draft a high-handicapper -- the I-won't-look-so-bad approach -- he has several other choices since these days the golfing edge in Washington clearly lies with the Democrats.
Before the announcement of Battle O-Bo, the red-letter day -- well, the red-and-blue-letter day -- was the annual "Ryder Cup" competition that takes place, usually in September, at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., a fund-raiser for the First Tee. Democratic and Republican representatives knock heads in a 27-hole format -- nine holes of four-ball, nine of foursomes and nine of singles.
Boehner has been one of the mainstays of the Republican team, but the Dems drilled the GOPs in 2010 and will be strongly favored again in September. The main regret that Colorado Democrat Mark Udall had when he progressed from the House to the Senate in 2008 is that he is no longer eligible for the representatives-only Ryder Cup. "I was heartbroken when I couldn't play anymore," said Udall during a recent interview in the Hart Senate Office Building. "But I was on five Ryder Cup teams, long enough to be undefeated in singles." He smiles wryly. "Not that I'm counting, of course."
Rep. Joe Baca of California is certainly counting. Invariably described as the fiercest competitor in the House or the Senate, a multitime MVP in the annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park and a 5' 6" fireplug who can hit his driver 300 yards, Baca takes his job as captain of the Democratic team quite seriously. He is also chairman of the Congressional Golf Caucus, a group determined to publicize the benefits of golf, and, as it is doing so, play a little golf.
You may rightfully get your ire up about a caucus devoted to golf. (And while we're at it, how do you feel about representatives from both sides of the aisle, between votes, beating balls into a net in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building?) But keep in mind that Washington is also home to the Congressional Hockey Caucus, the Ski and Snowboard Caucus, the House Small Brewers Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus. It should also be noted that the Congressional Caucus on Distracted Driving Awareness has nothing to do with getting off the tee.
Baca didn't pick up a club until he was 38, and now, 26 years later, plays to a 4.5 and even won the El Rancho Verde club championship in 2009 back in his home district. "I was a national-class softball player, a pitcher," says Baca, whose office walls in Rayburn are filled with photos of him playing with luminaries such as Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Tiger Woods, "and when I finally took up golf, I went after it the same aggressive way. Who knows where I'd be today if I would've had something like a First Tee program? [Baca is the last of 15 children born to a Mexican-American railroad worker.] Even now I think I can compete against the seniors."