The presidents are competitive. I was once in the unlikely position of telling Bill Clinton that Arnold Palmer liked his swing more than JFK's. "Really," Clinton said, impressed with his new status, and understandably so.
They say golf undresses a man, but the presidency does, too. Our golfing presidents have no chance. We see them in ways they cannot see themselves.
Our sense of Eisenhower would have been permanently altered had he apologized for his Augusta National membership, for his weak slice, for the 800 rounds he played over his eight years. He had been the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. What did he have to apologize for?
Kennedy played in Ray-Bans, and his patrician swing was loaded with style. Its substance was another question. We all know 41 played crazy-fast, and that 43 quit cold turkey amid the Iraq war. (He later returned to the fold.) But when the history of our golfing presidents gets updated -- here's looking at you, Don Van Natta -- you may be surprised at the new world order. The Comeback Kid is racing up the charts. Clinton has flown by Taft, he's neck-and-neck with Ford, and before he's done he could eclipse Ike as the president who has most influenced golf.
Meanwhile, President Obama, despite exhibiting all that early promise, is sinking like a ProV1 fired off the deck of the QEII. He still has time. He can turn this around. But he has to ask himself the hard questions that we all must ask ourselves. Among them: Who am I? Who do I want to be?
We remember his one brief shining moment. Christmas vacation 2009, Obama's first as president. In khaki shorts, under a blue Hawaiian sky, making all those happy, lefty swipes. Our First Duffer was an athletic beginner who had the bug bad. It was all good.
But now, in the middle of his presidential back nine, Obama is doing his best to make golf look dull and slow. He's hearing it at home, too: His missus has chided him for playing too much. Please. Fewer than 200 rounds in office? Somewhere, Ike is laughing.
More to the point, convincing your spouse that more golf makes you a better person is a skill someone in his position really should possess.
Obama has been trying to get on courses that don't want him. Not cool. His outings are all-day affairs. Not cool. He never talks about his golf in a fun or engaging way. Not cool.
Well, maybe he does, but not in public. In public, he seems embarrassed by his intense interest in the game.
Then came the August day that we, his fellow Americans, were shaken by that gruesome video. On that day, Obama should have done something more communal than playing at a private club on a remote island with no Burger King. You know what Clinton would have done: hugged Diane Foley and praised the greatness of our First Amendment and her son's devotion to it. Something like that. He would never have needed the word optics to explain his actions.
What happened to our enthusiastic commander in cleats in the Hawaiian sunshine? Has he turned himself into just another elitist golfer with a fancy law degree and a demanding job? Obama needs a golfing mentor, and we nominate Clinton. After all, his is the ultimate redemption story, and here we'll limit our discussion to his golf. Remember the hot summer of '94, when he signed for a vacation-round 82? Then, three years later, he had a "79." Observers howled and sought deeper meaning in his claimed sub-85 scores.
In time, the larger truth came out. Golf with Clinton was fun. Greg Norman and the elder Bush would tell you that. He knew the game -- the name Porky Oliver rolls off his lips -- and he adored it. He just, like all of us duffers, should have been reporting his matchplay results, not his stroke-play scores.
Post presidency, Clinton has flushed one shot after another. Here he is, in 2006, at the opening of the Tiger Woods Learning Center. Then, in 2012, chatting up Phil at the old Hope event, new and improved since Clinton attached his name to it. And in the Summer of Rory, lunching with the lad on the East End of Long Island.
He has helped Obama before. Ryan Lizza, in The New Yorker, identified a September 2011 Obama-Clinton golf game as the day 44 submitted himself to 42 and turned around his sagging reelection campaign.
Now it's time for another intervention. It all comes down to one thing. Golf bum: pejorative or compliment?
We know your answer, Mr. President. Stand up, sir. Stand up and be counted!