Golfers in Chief: The Best and Worst Presidential Golfers

February 15, 2016

Horse racing may be the sport of kings, but golf is clearly the sport of presidents.

Every president we’ve had since George H.W. Bush has been an avid player, and even those presidents who didn’t play regularly — like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — knew their way around the course. In fact, other than Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman, who preferred a game of poker, every modern president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was as comfortable on the first tee as on the stump.

We had GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher Brady Riggs analyze these videos to determine which president had the best swing, which president was the most overrated golfer, and to see what you can learn from our Golfers in Chief. Fore!

Barack Obama

One of the nice things about golf is that people reveal their personalities during a round. There’s no place to hide your true self on the course, and that’s certainly the case with President Obama. First, check out his setup. It looks like a well-trained address position, one amateurs could copy. Obama is square to the target, with good posture and alignment. This is a well-prepared setup, the kind you’d expect from a Harvard Law School graduate. He looks ready to hit a good shot. His backswing move is very compact and cautious. Obama’s backswing is the opposite of wild: it’s controlled and focused on avoiding mistakes. Coming down he’s pretty good. He’s got his weight moving in the right direction and makes good contact. The funny thing is that even though he aims down the middle, his shots fly to the left. Hmmmmm.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush has the best presidential swing I’ve seen. It looks like the swing of an athlete, and it really has some speed in it. Obviously, he’s had time to work on his game; his family has been around golf forever. The best thing about this swing is that Bush never stops moving. That’s something amateurs should keep in mind in their own swings. My favorite part of this swing is the twirl at the very end. It’s like a cowboy spinning his six-shooter before returning it to the holster. Completely unnecessary, but it looks cool.

Bill Clinton

How would I describe former President Bill Clinton’s golf swing? Entertaining and dangerous. Let’s start with the good stuff. In his mid-60s, Clinton still has a lot of flexibility, and he creates some decent speed with his swing. He’s a big guy who still has some athleticism; he doesn’t look like an old man out there. See the way he gets off his back foot? He’s really swinging at it and not leaving anything in the bag. It’s an aggressive move. Unfortunately, it’s not a good move from a technical standpoint. His grip is too weak and his left shoulder is open, so he is set up to hit the ball right. He also doesn’t keep his balance through the swing. At the end, he staggers around a little, so the swing feels a little incomplete. Clinton and Obama played in 2011 and Clinton said Obama beat him by “a couple shots.” That sounds right to me. Everything about Obama’s swing looks more solid than Clinton’s. That said, Obama doesn’t swing the club as aggressively as Clinton. Clinton has a bigger swing with a wider range of motion, but that weak grip doesn’t give him much of a chance. Obama won’t hit it as far as Clinton, but Clinton is more likely to find trouble. Clinton also looks like he’d probably be the most fun to play with of the presidential golfers.

George H.W. Bush

This swing is all about speed. If everyone played as fast as President Bush, we’d never see a round longer than 3 hours and 30 minutes. Forget about John Daly: Bush 41 was the original grip-it-and-rip-it. (He also was a long-putter pioneer, but that’s a different story.) Bush just walks up and hits it. That’s a good way for amateurs to play because it keeps you out of your head, which is where most amateurs don’t want to be. He swings the club in a very similar way to his son, Bush 43. Blast it and don’t overanalyze.

Gerald Ford

Now that’s a hot mess. I remember watching President Ford at the Bob Hope as a kid, and if he wasn’t hitting a spectator every nine holes, you were surprised. The funny thing is that the swing itself isn’t bad, but the result is. Talk about a great “Hank Haney Project” candidate. We all know that Ford was a great athlete — he played on two national championship football teams at Michigan — so what was the problem? It could be hand-eye coordination. It could be stress. He has one of those swings that looks like it would work on the range pretty good, but something happens when you take it to the course. That’s a good lesson for amateurs. You can have a swing that looks pretty good, but if the clubface isn’t square at impact, you have no chance. And the less we say about Ford’s short game, the better. All I can say about Ford’s chip at 0:30 is that I’d never seen a ball do that before.

Richard Nixon

There’s a lot of missing tape here. It’s ironic that when watching our most secretive president’s swing, you can’t actually see what you want to see. Still, it doesn’t look bad. He’s got some movement in it. Of course, I’ve seen a lot of good practice swings. Who knows what’s going to happen when he hits the ball? I’ll say one thing, though: President Nixon has the look down. He reminds me of Ken Venturi in that tam o’ shanter, and those pants are at about sternum height.

John F. Kennedy

I’d heard that JFK was a decent player, but he looks like a rank amateur in this video. His backswing is super-flat and his leg action is terrible, his right leg peels off the ground way too early. Not a lot of pivot either. One thing you could take away from JFK’s swing is that he looks pretty relaxed. That’s a good approach to the game. He’s clearly athletic, but it looks like someone who hasn’t done very much with his game. I don’t see anything here to lead me to believe that JFK was a good golfer, unless he was the best putter of all time.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

This is the same video as the Nixon swing. President Eisenhower belongs in the World Golf Hall of Fame for his love of the golf, but this swing is awful. He completely loses his posture. His body stays where it was at the top of his swing and never moves through the swing. As a teacher, I don’t know where I’d begin to fix a swing like that. We’d probably start from scratch. Obviously, Ike was a passionate golfer and he played hundreds of rounds as president, many of them at Augusta National. So why wasn’t he a better golfer? It’s something we teachers call the L.O.F.T principle: lack of friggin talent. Some guys are just never going to play golf well. It speaks highly of President Eisenhower that he loved golf so much despite not being very good at it.

In the end, that’s the reason golf is such a great game. None of our golfing presidents were serious players, but they embraced golf because the pursuit of excellence in golf is so challenging. It’s not surprising that these talented, ambitious and driven men were so drawn to golf. It’s a game that requires a strong sense of self-belief, and no matter what side of the aisle they sat on, all our presidents have had that in spades.