George H.W. Bush took his job seriously but not himself, and he was one of golf’s true gentlemen

December 5, 2018
George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, golf course

There’s one reason, above all others, that George H.W. Bush is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and that’s because he was a gent. Golfers, skilled and less skilled, were at his funeral on Wednesday. Donald Trump, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in the first row. George W. Bush, son and eulogist and his father’s sometimes golf partner, followed his father in.

Further back were two former PGA Tour commissioners, Deane Beman and Tim Finchem, and Jay Monahan, the current one. Among the players present were Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson. Jack Nicklaus. Jim Nantz, of course, was there. Nantz once shared a tidbit he got from President Bush about giving public remarks: “Go through your speech. Look for all the times you say I. Take out half of ‘em.” There was some Texas in 41’s speech. Yale is golfy and Maine is golfy but Texas is golf.

Had 41 been just a fast player, the grandson of a USGA president and a one-time post-War club champion at a preppy little summer course (Cape Arundel in Kennebunkport) he would not be in golf’s Hall of Fame. His enthusiasm for the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup certainly helped. But it was being a gentleman that got him in. The only other president enshrined is Dwight Eisenhower.

The underpinning of golf’s etiquette is consideration for others. The underpinning of fast play is that there are other things to do on any given day, and that you don’t want anyone waiting on you. What makes golf’s rules work is that they are applied equally to all. That you are required to be honest and responsible is the most fundamental thing of all. These are the things that soften golf’s inherent selfishness. These are also the things that separate a politician from a statesman. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t at the Washington Cathedral to honor a politician.

President Bush, who was 94 when he died, loved hanging around with young people, and golf gave him a way to do that. At 84, he was crazily youthful. Fred Couples and Davis Love, then and for years before, were regulars at the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport. Horse shoes, golf, terrifying high-speed boat runs, barbecue. They could not help President Bush with his chipping.

President Trump, is, by far, the best golfer to occupy the White House. His stated scores are fantasies, but he can play. His name, of course, is attached to dozens of courses. President Eisenhower, at his best, would not have defeated President Trump with three a side, two sleeves of ProV1s and all the titanium in the world. President Bush, if he could have held on to his circa 1947 game, might have had a better chance, but neither golf nor life works that way.

Could President Trump, as a figure in the game, someday be enshrined off I-95 in unincorporated St. Augustine? He turns 73 on U.S. Open Friday. Let’s see what the future brings. So far, answer for yourself. You likely know 41’s famous quote, about “the vision thing.” You have your own opinion whether 45 has “the gentleman thing.” That is, the true selflessness that comes with putting others first. Golf gives you a chance to practice that. A life in public service, in uniform and in government, does, of course, too, and much more meaningfully.

This reporter—not gonna do it, not going to use the first person—has two signed hand-written notes from President Bush. Treasures. Also, mental snapshots of seeing him at Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, walking inside the ropes, within an arm’s length, in his khaki pants, a team hat on his head, blending in, to the degree a former president of the United States can blend in at a crowded, partisan public event. He didn’t need attention. He didn’t even want it. He was to American politics what Nicklaus was to American golf. He was happy to have the work speak for itself.

A telling thing about President Bush, as golfer and human being, was his relationship with President Clinton, the man who defeated him for the presidency in 1992. It was golf that got the two former combatants together. Somebody once asked President Clinton, “Is this deal between you and Bush real?” Of course it was. They were golf partners.

Alan Simpson, in his eulogy on Wednesday, called President Bush “a class act.” Brian Mulroney called him “a gentleman” and recalled his sense of humor. His son President Bush made reference to two of his friends-through-golf, Jim Nantz and President Clinton, and joked about his fast pace.

The picture, taken all together, was of a man who took life seriously and himself less so. President Clinton surely could see those qualities, and they no doubt only came into clearer relief on the golf course.

There’s an example, for all of us.

President Bush said in his eulogy that his father was “not totally perfect—his short game was lousy.” Well, nobody should have everything. Life is better actually that way. You just try to get better. That’s why Fred worked with 41 on his chipping, knowing it was likely, but not necessarily, futile. That’s part of life too, right?

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]