John F. Kennedy resisted being seen on the golf course. His Republican predecessor in the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had publicly displayed his passion for the game, and the new Democratic president did not think that following in Ike’s footsteps was a shrewd political move. But as his first term was in the middle of its third year, Kennedy, perhaps inspired by his popularity with the American people, softened his stance. Instead of hiding his game, he was focused on improving it. And he wanted Arnold Palmer’s help.
So on Aug. 4, 1963, he brought White House chief photographer Cecil Stoughton to Hyannisport, Mass., to shoot a slow-motion, 16-millimeter silent film of him on the course. According to accounts given by Stoughton in the years before his death in 2008, JFK planned to invite Palmer to the White House to look at the film and critique his swing.
Kennedy arrived at the Hyannisport Club that summer day 48 years ago wearing a dark blue golf shirt that hung loosely over rose-colored pants. The nation’s 35th president would often walk to the club from his family’s compound—only a par-5 away. He never ventured into the members’ clubhouse but instead changed into his golf attire in the modest bag room, sitting on a wooden stool with a telephone at his side that linked directly to the White House.
That day he played alongside Paul Fay, the Undersecretary of the Navy, and the rare color footage of the 46-year-old president runs six minutes. It shows a relaxed, smiling Kennedy hitting tee shots, fairway woods, iron approaches, chip shots, a bunker shot and putts. Caddies stand nearby, while Secret Service agents can be seen in the background patrolling the woods.
The always photogenic Kennedy plays to the cameras. After draining a long putt, he looks directly into the lens, smiles broadly and flashes the O.K. sign by pressing together the tips of his index finger and thumb to form a circle. He has a habit of stepping back immediately after impact to face his target, intently watching the shot with his hands on his hips.
Despite chronic back pain, Kennedy possessed a fluid, graceful swing and was capable of shooting in the 70s. He would often slip onto the course in the late afternoon and play a handful of holes carrying three or four clubs.
Tom Niblet, then 31, had been hired as the Hyannisport Club pro the year Kennedy was elected president. Not long after Stoughton’s film was shot, JFK invited Niblet to play nine holes. “He kept asking me questions,” Niblet says. “I told him he had a very rhythmic swing and his timing was good. I noticed that he wasn’t taxing himself trying to hit the ball too far. I told him not to change a thing, just get out and play more. He smiled at that.”
Even in times of crisis, Kennedy would maintain a personal touch, once placing a phone call himself to cancel a golf lesson, saying only, “something came up.”
“A few minutes later I saw Marine helicopters landing on the 14th fairway and an entourage of officials get off,” Niblet says. “They were having some problems in Laos.”
On another occasion the pro-shop phone rang the morning after the club was burglarized. It was the president calling from the Oval Office.
“Tom, I heard you had a break-in last night,” JFK said.
“Yes sir, Mr. President,” Niblet replied.
“Did they get anything? Were you insured?” JFK asked.
Told that only a few golf clubs were stolen and insurance would cover it, Kennedy said, “Well, I just wanted to check.”
Kennedy was filmed playing golf a final time at Newport (R.I.) Country Club in mid-September 1963. The president and the first lady were celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. In one of the last images of JFK on the golf course, taken by photographer Robert Knudsen, the president and his wife are riding down the fairway in a golf cart, their backs to the camera, heading toward the ocean, the days of Camelot still shining brightly.
Stoughton returned to Washington to transfer his precious film onto a reel. Kennedy, eager for feedback on his swing, looked forward to inviting Palmer to the White House—as soon as he returned from Dallas.