When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, golf’s first golden age was a distant memory, but the conditions in postwar America were ripe for the game’s resurgence, and Ike was just the commander in chief to lead the charge. During his two terms in office Eisenhower played nearly 800 rounds. He befriended the game’s most beloved players, including Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, and was the subject of hundreds of golf jokes and cartoons. All an enterprising satirist needed in the 1950s was a pencil and a respectable rendering of a golf ball.
Ike was known for playing at the most exclusive clubs in the U.S., notably Augusta National, which he joined in 1948 and where today a cabin, pond, tree and cracker-barrel are named for him. The day after Ike won the 1952 election, he got what he considered his real prize — a vacation at Augusta.
At the beginning of his first round there, one photographer quipped, “I hope your golf score is not as high as the vote you got.” As the president stepped up to the tee, he shot back, “By golly, I hope you fellows carry insurance.”
Having Ike on the grounds posed serious challenges. To ensure his privacy and safety, guests were not permitted. Secret Service agents carried golf bags outfitted with Thompson submachine guns.
One tense moment arose while Ike was playing a match with Augusta cofounder Clifford Roberts and head pro Ed Dudley. Ike’s tee shot at the 12th hole landed in a bunker short of the green. As the president stepped onto the sandy bank to play his second shot, he sank to his knees in wet muck that was like quicksand before two agents charged in to rescue him.
Ike made 29 trips to Augusta as president, but never attended the Masters. He loved the tournament but feared his presence would distract the players. Instead, he began a tradition of flying to Augusta the Monday after to play with members and the new Masters champion.
Ike’s obsession with golf provided easy fodder for critics who accused him of spending more time rolling a little white ball down a fairway than attending to the affairs of state. Yet Eisenhower prevailed in the face of such criticism, enjoying widespread public support as he grappled with tough issues facing the country in the tumultuous postwar period. Golf was a key tool for him.
Ike considered Augusta National, and other clubs such as Burning Tree and Cherry Hills, extensions of the Oval Office, making country clubs his outposts of power. He used the game as a practical way to build alliances, frequently inviting men from both sides of the aisle in Congress, especially those he was trying to influence, for a friendly game.
Foreign leaders also were asked to tee it up with the president. Little surprise, then, that in 1953 a Washington Post columnist asked for a list of Ike’s golfing partners. He justified the request by explaining, “Those who golf or visit with the President in Augusta or at Burning Tree Club in Washington can vitally influence national policy.”
As a happy and expanding nation looked on, it realized it too could use the golf course as a place of business. In the coming years, thousands of fledgling businessmen would make like Ike and take their deal-making onto the links. A second Golden Age was dawning.
Don’t Ask What I Shot: How Eisenhower’s Love of Golf Helped Shape 1950s America, by Catherine Lewis, will be published in May by McGraw-Hill.