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Golf is a four-letter word on Capitol Hill, but the Obama-Boehner match could change that

John Yarmuth
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI
Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth is one of several avid players on Capitol Hill.

We've heard that before. But it's safe to say that no one in Washington pursues golf with the same passion as Baca. His competitiveness makes it unlikely, however, that he would be asked to join the O-Bo foursome, even though he would love to. "I played with Bill Clinton, and right after President Obama took office, I asked him about playing," says Baca. "But he told me, 'I'm not ready for you yet.' "

Obama could tap Yarmuth, a skillful political tightrope walker who plays to a 3. Yarmuth, who before being elected to Congress in 2006 wrote antiwar, anti-George W. Bush columns for a liberal magazine he owned in Louisville, is widely known within the Kentucky Golf Association as the golfing liberal, the oddball at Valhalla, host to two major championships and the real Ryder Cup, in 2008. He is a member there and can usually be found, weather permitting, playing at least one weekend match. "They see a clinton or an obama bumper sticker in the parking lot at Valhalla," says Yarmuth, "and everyone says, 'Well, Yarmuth's here.' "

Plus, Yarmuth has played with and against Boehner in the Ryder Cup. "John and I always get along great when we play," says Yarmuth. "We talk business but not serious business." Then, too, Yarmuth's Boehner swing imitation would ease the tension in the foursome, and the Kentuckian seems more than willing to straighten out Obama's game as well. "I would love to play with the President, but it hasn't happened," says Yarmuth. "His swing could use a little work, but he's a good athlete and I bet some improvements could be made."

Another candidate for the O-Bo foursome is Udall, for it was the Colorado Democrat, after all, who suggested that Republicans and Democrats walk in and sit together at Obama's State of the Union speech in January. "I really do believe that golf has resulted in some legislative initiatives," says Udall, who, with a 2 handicap, is listed as the best golfer in Congress in the Golf Digest rankings. "It creates ties and relationships."

He is more secretive about his golf, much less an advocate than Baca, much less known as a golfer than Yarmuth. Udall is just as proud of his other athletic accomplishments -- he's an avid mountaineer who three times has unsuccessfully attempted to scale Mount Everest -- as he is about golf. "I play golf the way some people ski," says Udall, "and that is from the neck down. I don't get my mind in it. I picked good parents, I'm still flexible, and I grooved a swing when I was a kid that continues to serve me well. I don't really need to practice much to stay pretty sharp."

At the time of the interview Udall had just finished reading The Match, Mark Frost's account of the famous four-ball exhibition between Ben Hogan-Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi-Harvie Ward. That showdown took place at Cypress Point in 1956, eight years before Venturi stumbled to victory at Congressional amid the heat and humidity of the '64 U.S. Open. Udall says that he has never played Congressional, the Devereux Emmet design that according to the club's website was established in 1924 "to provide an informal common ground where politicians and businessmen could meet as peers, unconstrained by red tape." (In other words, a place to make deals without anyone looking.) "There's a myth that members of Congress can just present themselves at the gates of Congressional and say, 'Here I am,' " says Udall. "Unfortunately, it doesn't hold true."

Three of his staffers inform Udall that it's time to stop the golf chatter and move along, but the senator is clearly amped up. The weather is warm and sometimes beating balls into a net simply isn't enough for a man. Udall reminisces about his golf motivation ("I remember watching, on a black-and-white TV, Arnie charging from behind to win the Masters in 1958," he says) and jokes about how he and some of his Democratic colleagues judge potential electees. "We say, 'I think he's got excellent credentials, and by the way, he's a three.' "

Udall points to a closet along the far wall of his spacious office. "You know, my sticks are right over there," he says. A staffer tells him, a little stronger this time, that it's time to go. "Man, I could talk about this all day," he says, then suddenly rises, strides to the closet and pulls out a set that includes a Titleist driver and three-metal, TaylorMade wedges and an Odyssey putter. Udall pulls a club out of the bag and frowns. "Look at that," he says, "still dirty from the last round I played. I think it was at the University of Virginia course in Charlottesville. Unless it was. . . . Man, I gotta get back out there."

Washington was once a world where the sticks of powerful men were often dirty, and no one thought much about it. William Howard Taft, the first president to take the game seriously, played an average of twice a week during his one term from 1909 to 1913, although one of those days would've been better spent on the treadmill -- Taft weighed in at about 350 pounds and had a short, choppy swing that limited his length.

Warren Harding (1921-23) was an enthusiastic player who reportedly enjoyed sporting bets on the course; celebrated sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a long account in The American Golfer of a low-stakes friendly he played with Harding, Under Secretary of State Henry Fletcher and fellow sports scribe Ring Lardner in April 1921. "The President's two best shots are among the hardest in the game," Rice wrote. "A mashie niblick pitch over trouble and putting."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) was one of the better presidential golfers, though his inclusion requires an asterisk -- he played before he was elected to the Oval Office and before polio put him in a wheelchair. He also lit his long cigarettes with a golf-ball lighter that had the striking mechanism on top.

It wasn't only presidents who played the game in Washington. The best politico-player ever was Jack Westland, who lost to Francis Ouimet in the final of the 1931 U.S. Amateur, took the title in 1952 (when he was 47), then ran for Congress as a Republican from Washington and served six terms. Of course, not every president liked golf. Harry Truman, who followed FDR, hated the game; he, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter appear to be the only presidents from the start of the 20th century who never played.

But it was Truman's successor who did the most to make golf synonymous with Washington. A photo snapped in October 1946 shows Dwight D. Eisenhower -- World War II heroism behind him but still in uniform -- playing the Road Hole at St. Andrews. After his election in 1952, there are probably as many extant photos of Ike playing golf as there are of Ike attending to affairs of state. From 1953 to 1961, more than 1,000 of his days were spent engaged in golf, either actually playing or putting and chipping on the 3,000-square-foot green he had installed, with assistance from the USGA, outside the Oval Office in 1954. (Oddly, Richard Nixon, Ike's protege and a golfer himself, had it removed, but Bill Clinton had it restored.) Ike played in wind, rain and hail, and he played all over the place, including Congressional. His clear favorite, though, was Augusta National, where he was a member and even has a tree named after him, on the 17th fairway. Former Masters chairman Clifford Roberts once said that Ike was "the most enthusiastic golfer I ever knew."

Inevitably, Eisenhower drew fire for playing too much. A 1957 Washington Post editorial cartoon depicted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in golf attire and holding a club, tipping his hat as Sputnik orbited, a double-slam on Ike for playing golf while the U.S. fell behind in the space race. Such criticism is why his successor, John F. Kennedy, despite being a sweet-swinging player who could break 80, kept much of his golf on the down-low. Before he became president, Kennedy the campaigner was playing a round at Cypress Point when he sent a shot with a seven-iron toward the pin at the 143-yard 15th. He became the only golfer in recorded history to yell at his own ball, "Don't go in!" He was afraid that an ace would command too much attention and that the public would fear another Golfer-in-Chief was in the offing.

The Bushes, 41 and 43, had a different idea about golf. Determined to demonstrate that he was not metaphorically handcuffed (like Jimmy Carter) by events in the Middle East, George H.W. Bush issued statements about Saddam Hussein's militarism from the emergency mobile phone in his golf cart in the summer of 1990. In August 2002, George W. Bush memorably issued a stern statement about terrorism from the 1st tee at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, then without taking so much as a breath added, "Now watch this drive." He showed excellent form as he striped his ball down the fairway.

But Bush 43 eventually caught flack for his golf, and these are even more contentious times. Before the announcement of the O-Bo Showdown, golf had become Something You Don't Want to Get Caught Doing, like, say, being Facebook friends with Hugo Chavez. Ethics legislation passed in 2007 that tightened restrictions on when and how lobbyists can play with politicians and their staffers went a long way toward turning golf into the wrong kind of four-letter word. Much of that had to do with high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who a year earlier pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, golf boondoggles among the indiscretions that got Abramoff in trouble.

Republicans now count up Obama's days on the golf course as carefully as Democrats once tallied Bush 43's, each side putting a their-guy-is-fiddling-while-Rome-burns spin to the criticism. As recently as 2005, Boehner bragged to Golf Digest that he got in 100 rounds a year. Now he won't even talk about his game. All of the congressmen interviewed for this story issued some kind of proviso that their weekend golf games are positively and absolutely not the reason for legislative gridlock. "It's good talking to you," said Mike Conaway, a Republican representative from Texas who usually gets out once a week at Midland Country Club in his home district, "but I don't want my constituency to think I'm neglecting my duties." When he joked about losing money in friendly course wagers, Conaway broke the phone interview for a moment to talk to his wife, Suzanne. "She doesn't want you thinking that it's too much money," he said, "because it isn't."

But maybe all that will be change on June 18. Perhaps the best idea is for the President and the Speaker to team up. There will undoubtedly be video opportunities, and imagine the nation healing as it watches the two men strolling side by side down the fairway, lining up each other's putts and offering a "Great shot, John!" and a "Well-played, Mr. President!" from time to time.

It's such a wonderful idea. Now let's just hope they don't end up like Tiger and Phil.

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