Golf is a four-letter word on Capitol Hill, but the Obama-Boehner match could change that

Golf is a four-letter word on Capitol Hill, but the Obama-Boehner match could change that

John Boehner will have to give President Barack Obama nine shots when they finally meet on the links, but will the President take them?
Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.COM

War, recession, partisanship and a lobbyist scandal turned the sport into a four-letter word in the nation’s capital, but a handful of congressional golf nuts and the looming Obama-Boehner match could be game-changers

John Yarmuth, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky and a low-handicap liberal who has passed along golf tips on The Colbert Report, springs to his feet, grips an imaginary club and hunches over in a scrunched-up stance, wrists cocked far forward. “Frankly, I don’t know how he hits it at all,” says Yarmuth, sitting back down on the couch in his office in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C. “He” is John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is also Speaker of the House and Yarmuth’s antipole on most political issues. But Yarmuth wants to make it clear that this is not political smackdown. “John gets it around really, really well,” says Yarmuth, “and he’s a competitor.”

Still, stance-imitation borders on insult, and one might hope that Boehner, a skilled verbal counterpuncher, would offer a snappy comeback, perhaps a jab at the Democrat’s spendthrift attitude on $10 Nassaus. But Boehner declined an interview request to discuss his golf game, or even golf in general, something that now seems to be set-in-stone policy.

Several of Washington’s other power brokers also refused to speak, including the Power-Broker-in-Chief, who, despite being an ardent proselytizer of pickup hoops, is reticent to admit that from time to time he also pulls out his sticks. Representatives for Obama also kindly turned down an SI request to shoot the President’s bag.

Yes, over the past year both men have kept their respective golfing joneses under wraps (like their cigarette smoking) in keeping with a hush-hush atmosphere that surrounds the golf scene in Washington. That represents a sea change from the days when Dwight (I’ll Be Back After 18) Eisenhower seemed to worry as much about his incurable slice as he did about the Soviet Union’s incursions into Eastern Europe.

But all that is about to change.

After much hemming and hawing about getting together on the links, Obama has finally invited Boehner to tee it up, and the Speaker quickly accepted. They could’ve picked a less busy date on the golf calendar — Saturday, June 18, which corresponds with Moving Day at the U.S. Open at Congressional — but, hey, when you’re two of the most powerful men in the free world, you play when you want, right? And, one supposes, where you want, though at press time there had been no site selected for Battle O-Bo.

Wherever it happens, the match is going to have an unconventional look since the President is a straight southpaw and Boehner is a righthanded swinger who putts from the left side. Pundits are no doubt already in search of ways to conflate their playing with their politics. Obama started his ball right, but, sure enough, back it came to the left. Boehner’s lefty putting routine suggests room for compromise. We must assume that negotiations for strokes have already started. Boehner is listed as a 7.9 and Obama a 17 in Golf Digest‘s annual recap of Washington’s power players, which means Obama should get nine shots. But will he take them knowing he’ll have to explain to Fox News why he’s on the dole?

The mind boggles, too, at the fervid behind-the-scenes negotiations that must be going on to round out that foursome. [Editors’ note: NBC is reporting that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio will partner with Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden with Obama.] Well-known pros are out for that weekend, but Battle O-Bo could be an old-timers deal — you got Jack, I’ll take Arnie. Or maybe a reach-out for the women’s vote — you got Lorena, I’ll take Annika. But to make it palatable for an American public facing 9.1% unemployment, the best guess is that Battle O-Bo will have to come across as a work day. Automatic two-down presses and fix health care on the back nine.

The best guess is that the foursome will be politically balanced. Boehner has at his disposal two low-handicap conservative Republicans in Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee (2.1) and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina (4). Two other Southern senators are also fine players — Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss and North Carolina’s Richard Burr, 7.4 and 7.5, respectively. The most obvious choice for Obama is his Vice President, since Joe Biden is a fine player with a handicap last listed at 6.3. The Boehner camp may object, however, on the grounds that Biden talks so much it would be like having two teammates.

Unless the President decides to draft a high-handicapper — the I-won’t-look-so-bad approach — he has several other choices since these days the golfing edge in Washington clearly lies with the Democrats.

Before the announcement of Battle O-Bo, the red-letter day — well, the red-and-blue-letter day — was the annual “Ryder Cup” competition that takes place, usually in September, at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., a fund-raiser for the First Tee. Democratic and Republican representatives knock heads in a 27-hole format — nine holes of four-ball, nine of foursomes and nine of singles.

Boehner has been one of the mainstays of the Republican team, but the Dems drilled the GOPs in 2010 and will be strongly favored again in September. The main regret that Colorado Democrat Mark Udall had when he progressed from the House to the Senate in 2008 is that he is no longer eligible for the representatives-only Ryder Cup. “I was heartbroken when I couldn’t play anymore,” said Udall during a recent interview in the Hart Senate Office Building. “But I was on five Ryder Cup teams, long enough to be undefeated in singles.” He smiles wryly. “Not that I’m counting, of course.”

Rep. Joe Baca of California is certainly counting. Invariably described as the fiercest competitor in the House or the Senate, a multitime MVP in the annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park and a 5′ 6″ fireplug who can hit his driver 300 yards, Baca takes his job as captain of the Democratic team quite seriously. He is also chairman of the Congressional Golf Caucus, a group determined to publicize the benefits of golf, and, as it is doing so, play a little golf.

You may rightfully get your ire up about a caucus devoted to golf. (And while we’re at it, how do you feel about representatives from both sides of the aisle, between votes, beating balls into a net in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building?) But keep in mind that Washington is also home to the Congressional Hockey Caucus, the Ski and Snowboard Caucus, the House Small Brewers Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus. It should also be noted that the Congressional Caucus on Distracted Driving Awareness has nothing to do with getting off the tee.

Baca didn’t pick up a club until he was 38, and now, 26 years later, plays to a 4.5 and even won the El Rancho Verde club championship in 2009 back in his home district. “I was a national-class softball player, a pitcher,” says Baca, whose office walls in Rayburn are filled with photos of him playing with luminaries such as Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Tiger Woods, “and when I finally took up golf, I went after it the same aggressive way. Who knows where I’d be today if I would’ve had something like a First Tee program? [Baca is the last of 15 children born to a Mexican-American railroad worker.] Even now I think I can compete against the seniors.”

We’ve heard that before. But it’s safe to say that no one in Washington pursues golf with the same passion as Baca. His competitiveness makes it unlikely, however, that he would be asked to join the O-Bo foursome, even though he would love to. “I played with Bill Clinton, and right after President Obama took office, I asked him about playing,” says Baca. “But he told me, ‘I’m not ready for you yet.’ “

Obama could tap Yarmuth, a skillful political tightrope walker who plays to a 3. Yarmuth, who before being elected to Congress in 2006 wrote antiwar, anti-George W. Bush columns for a liberal magazine he owned in Louisville, is widely known within the Kentucky Golf Association as the golfing liberal, the oddball at Valhalla, host to two major championships and the real Ryder Cup, in 2008. He is a member there and can usually be found, weather permitting, playing at least one weekend match. “They see a clinton or an obama bumper sticker in the parking lot at Valhalla,” says Yarmuth, “and everyone says, ‘Well, Yarmuth’s here.’ “

Plus, Yarmuth has played with and against Boehner in the Ryder Cup. “John and I always get along great when we play,” says Yarmuth. “We talk business but not serious business.” Then, too, Yarmuth’s Boehner swing imitation would ease the tension in the foursome, and the Kentuckian seems more than willing to straighten out Obama’s game as well. “I would love to play with the President, but it hasn’t happened,” says Yarmuth. “His swing could use a little work, but he’s a good athlete and I bet some improvements could be made.”

Another candidate for the O-Bo foursome is Udall, for it was the Colorado Democrat, after all, who suggested that Republicans and Democrats walk in and sit together at Obama’s State of the Union speech in January. “I really do believe that golf has resulted in some legislative initiatives,” says Udall, who, with a 2 handicap, is listed as the best golfer in Congress in the Golf Digest rankings. “It creates ties and relationships.”

He is more secretive about his golf, much less an advocate than Baca, much less known as a golfer than Yarmuth. Udall is just as proud of his other athletic accomplishments — he’s an avid mountaineer who three times has unsuccessfully attempted to scale Mount Everest — as he is about golf. “I play golf the way some people ski,” says Udall, “and that is from the neck down. I don’t get my mind in it. I picked good parents, I’m still flexible, and I grooved a swing when I was a kid that continues to serve me well. I don’t really need to practice much to stay pretty sharp.”

At the time of the interview Udall had just finished reading The Match, Mark Frost’s account of the famous four-ball exhibition between Ben Hogan-Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi-Harvie Ward. That showdown took place at Cypress Point in 1956, eight years before Venturi stumbled to victory at Congressional amid the heat and humidity of the ’64 U.S. Open. Udall says that he has never played Congressional, the Devereux Emmet design that according to the club’s website was established in 1924 “to provide an informal common ground where politicians and businessmen could meet as peers, unconstrained by red tape.” (In other words, a place to make deals without anyone looking.) “There’s a myth that members of Congress can just present themselves at the gates of Congressional and say, ‘Here I am,’ ” says Udall. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold true.”

Three of his staffers inform Udall that it’s time to stop the golf chatter and move along, but the senator is clearly amped up. The weather is warm and sometimes beating balls into a net simply isn’t enough for a man. Udall reminisces about his golf motivation (“I remember watching, on a black-and-white TV, Arnie charging from behind to win the Masters in 1958,” he says) and jokes about how he and some of his Democratic colleagues judge potential electees. “We say, ‘I think he’s got excellent credentials, and by the way, he’s a three.’ “

Udall points to a closet along the far wall of his spacious office. “You know, my sticks are right over there,” he says. A staffer tells him, a little stronger this time, that it’s time to go. “Man, I could talk about this all day,” he says, then suddenly rises, strides to the closet and pulls out a set that includes a Titleist driver and three-metal, TaylorMade wedges and an Odyssey putter. Udall pulls a club out of the bag and frowns. “Look at that,” he says, “still dirty from the last round I played. I think it was at the University of Virginia course in Charlottesville. Unless it was. . . . Man, I gotta get back out there.”

Washington was once a world where the sticks of powerful men were often dirty, and no one thought much about it. William Howard Taft, the first president to take the game seriously, played an average of twice a week during his one term from 1909 to 1913, although one of those days would’ve been better spent on the treadmill — Taft weighed in at about 350 pounds and had a short, choppy swing that limited his length.

Warren Harding (1921-23) was an enthusiastic player who reportedly enjoyed sporting bets on the course; celebrated sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a long account in The American Golfer of a low-stakes friendly he played with Harding, Under Secretary of State Henry Fletcher and fellow sports scribe Ring Lardner in April 1921. “The President’s two best shots are among the hardest in the game,” Rice wrote. “A mashie niblick pitch over trouble and putting.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) was one of the better presidential golfers, though his inclusion requires an asterisk — he played before he was elected to the Oval Office and before polio put him in a wheelchair. He also lit his long cigarettes with a golf-ball lighter that had the striking mechanism on top.

It wasn’t only presidents who played the game in Washington. The best politico-player ever was Jack Westland, who lost to Francis Ouimet in the final of the 1931 U.S. Amateur, took the title in 1952 (when he was 47), then ran for Congress as a Republican from Washington and served six terms. Of course, not every president liked golf. Harry Truman, who followed FDR, hated the game; he, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter appear to be the only presidents from the start of the 20th century who never played.

But it was Truman’s successor who did the most to make golf synonymous with Washington. A photo snapped in October 1946 shows Dwight D. Eisenhower — World War II heroism behind him but still in uniform — playing the Road Hole at St. Andrews. After his election in 1952, there are probably as many extant photos of Ike playing golf as there are of Ike attending to affairs of state. From 1953 to 1961, more than 1,000 of his days were spent engaged in golf, either actually playing or putting and chipping on the 3,000-square-foot green he had installed, with assistance from the USGA, outside the Oval Office in 1954. (Oddly, Richard Nixon, Ike’s protege and a golfer himself, had it removed, but Bill Clinton had it restored.) Ike played in wind, rain and hail, and he played all over the place, including Congressional. His clear favorite, though, was Augusta National, where he was a member and even has a tree named after him, on the 17th fairway. Former Masters chairman Clifford Roberts once said that Ike was “the most enthusiastic golfer I ever knew.”

Inevitably, Eisenhower drew fire for playing too much. A 1957 Washington Post editorial cartoon depicted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in golf attire and holding a club, tipping his hat as Sputnik orbited, a double-slam on Ike for playing golf while the U.S. fell behind in the space race. Such criticism is why his successor, John F. Kennedy, despite being a sweet-swinging player who could break 80, kept much of his golf on the down-low. Before he became president, Kennedy the campaigner was playing a round at Cypress Point when he sent a shot with a seven-iron toward the pin at the 143-yard 15th. He became the only golfer in recorded history to yell at his own ball, “Don’t go in!” He was afraid that an ace would command too much attention and that the public would fear another Golfer-in-Chief was in the offing.

The Bushes, 41 and 43, had a different idea about golf. Determined to demonstrate that he was not metaphorically handcuffed (like Jimmy Carter) by events in the Middle East, George H.W. Bush issued statements about Saddam Hussein’s militarism from the emergency mobile phone in his golf cart in the summer of 1990. In August 2002, George W. Bush memorably issued a stern statement about terrorism from the 1st tee at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, then without taking so much as a breath added, “Now watch this drive.” He showed excellent form as he striped his ball down the fairway.

But Bush 43 eventually caught flack for his golf, and these are even more contentious times. Before the announcement of the O-Bo Showdown, golf had become Something You Don’t Want to Get Caught Doing, like, say, being Facebook friends with Hugo Chavez. Ethics legislation passed in 2007 that tightened restrictions on when and how lobbyists can play with politicians and their staffers went a long way toward turning golf into the wrong kind of four-letter word. Much of that had to do with high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who a year earlier pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, golf boondoggles among the indiscretions that got Abramoff in trouble.

Republicans now count up Obama’s days on the golf course as carefully as Democrats once tallied Bush 43’s, each side putting a their-guy-is-fiddling-while-Rome-burns spin to the criticism. As recently as 2005, Boehner bragged to Golf Digest that he got in 100 rounds a year. Now he won’t even talk about his game. All of the congressmen interviewed for this story issued some kind of proviso that their weekend golf games are positively and absolutely not the reason for legislative gridlock. “It’s good talking to you,” said Mike Conaway, a Republican representative from Texas who usually gets out once a week at Midland Country Club in his home district, “but I don’t want my constituency to think I’m neglecting my duties.” When he joked about losing money in friendly course wagers, Conaway broke the phone interview for a moment to talk to his wife, Suzanne. “She doesn’t want you thinking that it’s too much money,” he said, “because it isn’t.”

But maybe all that will be change on June 18. Perhaps the best idea is for the President and the Speaker to team up. There will undoubtedly be video opportunities, and imagine the nation healing as it watches the two men strolling side by side down the fairway, lining up each other’s putts and offering a “Great shot, John!” and a “Well-played, Mr. President!” from time to time.

It’s such a wonderful idea. Now let’s just hope they don’t end up like Tiger and Phil.

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