WASHINGTON (AP) — For House Speaker John Boehner, breaking par can be as elusive as breaking the spiraling federal debt.
But a few hours roaming 18 holes at the country club can be a welcome diversion from the daily grind in the nation’s capital. In some cases, the leader in the clubhouse might very well be the leader of the House, the 61-year-old Ohio Republican with the cringe-inducing hitch in his swing.
“If you play with him, you can’t watch him swing,” said Cincinnati businessman Jerry Vanden Eynden, a lifelong friend. “You’ve got to turn your back. I keep telling him, ‘You play so damn much, you ought to get good.'”
Boehner does indeed play a lot, and he is good. Golf Digest, in its June issue, ranks him as the ninth best golfer in Congress and 43rd among all Washingtonians connected to the political scene. His handicap is estimated at 7.9 — good enough to be the envy of duffers everywhere — although that represents some slippage from 2005, when he boasted to the magazine that he played some 100 rounds per year.
“It’s a way for him to unwind and relax, get away from the pressure,” said his brother, Bob Boehner. “I’m sure there’s got to be a tremendous amount of pressure in that job.”
Ever since Boehner’s ascent to the Speaker’s chair four months ago, there’s been talk of the ultimate bipartisan round with President Barack Obama, who loves to play but is more of a hacker — 108th in Golf Digest’s rankings. Then-presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said in January that he could see it happening but it “might require the president to practice a bit.” However, much like a round of budget negotiations, momentum for an Obama-Boehner pairing appears to have stalled.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel says the speaker hasn’t played as much as he’d like in recent months because of the increased demands of the job, but even a round or two can be fodder for critics. There was no mistaking the sarcasm when the Senate Democrats’ Twitter feed asked “What did you shoot yesterday?” after Boehner played a course in Sarasota, Fla., in February while intense negotiations continued in Washington to avert a federal government shutdown.
It was a role reversal of sorts from 1995, when Boehner criticized then-President Bill Clinton over a golf outing as a government shutdown loomed. “Now is the time, not to play golf as the president did yesterday, now is the time to act,” Boehner said back then.
Boehner declined to be interviewed about his golfing hobby. Asked to justify the February round of golf in light of the 1995 remarks, Steel answered: “Our goal is to cut government spending, not to shut the government down.” Steel noted that at the time, the House had passed a bill and the Democratic-controlled Senate had not, adding “that has nothing to do with how the Speaker spends his time.”
Boehner wasn’t raised a golfer. Basketball and football, which he played under former Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust at Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, were the sports linchpins of his modest upbringing in southwest Ohio. Friends and coaches said he was always competitive, if a bit unorthodox. In softball, for example, he would throw right-handed and bat left-handed.
“He was aggressive,” Vanden Eynden said. “We came from a very blue-collar town. In Moeller, back where we went, most of the rougher kids came from our neighborhood. We played what we would call the ‘free sports.’ You just showed up down at the park and you played whatever season it was, baseball, softball. John was a real good softball player. He was pretty good in everything but golf. I keep telling people the only thing he knew about golf back then was how to caddie.”
Boehner didn’t take up golf until he was in his 30s and working for a plastics company. When the owner died, he left Boehner a set of clubs. He’s never been picture-pretty: He originally played left-handed and still putts that way, but now he swings from the other side — a politician who works both the right and the left, at least in a golfing sense.
“He attacked the golf course like he does everything else,” Bob Boehner said. “He worked hard to get better at the game because he didn’t want to embarrass himself. In the business world, on the golf course, that’s where they get things done. You can’t hide behind a good golf game. Either you’re good at it or you’re not.”
In politics, though, a prolific golf game can have its drawbacks. In 2010, a commercial produced during his House race in Ohio mocked Boehner’s love of the sport with a barrage of statistics and concluded: “For those who want an out of touch golfer for a congressman, there’s John Boehner.” There was also a billboard posted along an interstate that asked: “When was the last time you golfed 119 times in one year?” Boehner, who has played some of the most exclusive courses in the country, has also been chided for his membership at Burning Tree, an all-male golf club in Maryland.
“They all pick on him about playing so much golf, but that’s part of his job,” Vanden Eynden said. “If you’re going to go out and try to raise the money that he’s raising, you don’t take them to the local (municipal) courses. Most of those guys with money, they’re not going to go down to the local muni course and play. They’re going to want to go somewhere nice; they’re used to that.
“Boehner’s not the first one to start this and probably won’t be the last. I don’t care what party you’re in; that’s where you’re going to get the business done,” Vanden Eynden said.
Depending on his company, Boehner uses golf both as an extension of the office and as a means to get away from the stress of it. Next week, he’ll host the 28th annual “Boehner Birdie Hunt” at Wetherington Country Club near Cincinnati.
“Boehner often says that on the golf course, you can’t hide who you really are,” Steel said. “It really gives you a chance to get to know someone. And that’s crucial in business and politics.”
Boehner may or may not eventually go 18 holes with the president, but golfing fans might say he snagged a more impressive partner when he played a round with Tiger Woods in a pro-am tournament at the prestigious Congressional Country Club in Maryland a couple years ago.
Woods laughed when asked to recall that day.
“Obviously,” Woods said, “his day job is a lot better than his golf swing.”