What professional golfer will end up in Barack Obama's orbit?

Wednesday January 21st, 2009
Obama played a round of golf while in Hawaii to celebrate the holidays.
Gerald Herbert/AP

Most every golfing president can be identified with one star professional. Sometimes the president and the pro come out of the same mold (JFK and Arnold Palmer). Sometimes the president finds his alter ego (Ike and Arnold Palmer). It's easy to see Jerry Ford as a Jack Nicklaus man, two pass-the-gravy Midwesterners with no use for irony. George W. Bush, with his Texas squint, is close to Ben Crenshaw, a man fluent in the ways of Texas.

Forty-three's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, has played a lot of golf with another well-mannered golfer, Davis M. Love III. Trip was a Walker Cup star, an event named for a Bush progenitor. LBJ played golf only to further his political agenda and played happily with members of Congress, but he had no need to tee it up with, say, Gary Player, or other stars of the '60s. Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, had a favorite pro who was unlike him in every way: Slammin' Sam Snead. Snead was as relaxed as Nixon was uptight, with a swing as free as Nixon's was constricted. A perfect match.

As a golfing president, Bill Clinton will forever be linked to Greg Norman. You may recall how Clinton, in the wee small hours of a Florida night, slipped on the steps of Shark's guest house, putting his presidential golf game on hold for some weeks as he got around on presidential crutches. Both golfers, you could say, had outsized appetites, and were damn fun to watch.

And now we have a new president of the United States, Barack Obama, urged to play golf by his wife, Michelle, who felt that his other sporting hobby, basketball, was too dangerous for a man of his advancing years. (He got golf and was able to keep basketball — nicely done, sir.) And a question inquiring golfers want to have answered is this: What star golfer will wind up in his orbit?

One might think Michelle Wie, who, like Obama, graduated from the Punahou School, in Honolulu, would get a game with the 44th president at some point. Ditto for PGA Tour winner Parker McLachlin, who played pick-up basketball with Obama this month and whose father, Chris, was Obama's high school basketball coach.

But as Kennedy was drawn to Palmer, there is one and only one obvious star playing partner for BHO: his excellency, Tiger Woods. As a young boy, Tiger played his golf on the public courses and the military courses of southern California. Obama, relatively new to golf, has spoken of his desire to play Bethpage Black, Pebble Beach and the Old Course — all three public courses. Both men, of course, are biracial, both are prodigies, both can articulate complex thoughts with great economy, both are disciplined in the extreme, both are superstars.

On the day before Martin Luther King Day, from the Lincoln Memorial, in a ceremony that celebrated both King's legacy and the inauguration of a new president, Woods spoke briefly about the role that the military played in his life, and in all of our lives. He did not mention King, or even Obama, but he spoke of soldiers who fight "in the dark of night and far from home." He quoted Lincoln. He referred to his father, "Lieutenant Colonel Earl Woods." He introduced the U.S. Naval Glee Club.

Don Van Natta, a reporter for The New York Times and the author of a book on presidential golfing habits, "First Off the Tee," found Woods's comments moving and filled with context. "He didn't have to mention Obama," Van Natta said in a telephone interview. "When he talked about his father's experiences, he was talking about Obama's experiences." Before there could be a first black president, there had to be a first black baseball player in the Big Eight, and Earl Woods was a catcher at Kansas State, way back when.

Van Natta could see Obama and Woods getting along famously, on the course and off. When Obama talks about fixing the economy, he says there will be no short-cuts; Woods the golfer is dismissive of short-cuts, too.

Woods has been famously apolitical for his professional career, and he may continue to be so. Still, he may find the draw of presidential golf with Barack Obama irresistible. Not just because of the power the man now has, but for his intelligence and his passion and because of their gross similarities.

As for Obama, consider this: your scheduler gives you a choice. You can go to a security briefing with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, or get in quick game — not waiting — at Congressional with Tiger and watch him hit stingers and cut 3-woods off hanging lies and bounce balls off the face of his Nike driver blindfolded?

Surely, President Obama knows the phrase, "It's a no-brainer."

Woods and Obama, golf partners, could be the best thing to happen to golf since Ike started playing with Arnie. Or even better.

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