National Golf Links’ very existence is tied to son of Abraham Lincoln

Former President George W. Bush watches the Walker Cup on Saturday at National Golf Links with his wife, Laura. Bush's great-grandfather, George Walker, founded the event.
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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — This Walker Cup, played on a piece of windswept American linksland that must make the Great Britain & Ireland team feel like they're playing a home game, began with the Walkers. That is, various descendants of former USGA president George Walker. Two of them grew up to become American presidents. We're talking 41 and 43, of course.

A couple days ago, George W. Bush hit a welcoming shot off the first tee of the National Golf Links, a shot described as "perfect" by the U.S. captain, Jim Holtgrieve. The former president was less effusive. "I didn't get all of it," he said.

But there's a far more direct presidential tie to the National Golf Links than the ones the Bushes present. And that's the Lincoln connection.

Did you see "Lincoln," the movie? Remember Lincoln's older son, the Harvard student Robert Todd Lincoln? In the waning days of the Civil War, he had to fight with his mother to get permission to join the Union army. Well that man, Robert Todd Lincoln himself, a wealthy Chicagoan and golf nut, became a founding member of the National Golf Links, right around 1907. Talk about compressing time.

The National Golf Links was built by one of the most important figures in American golf, Charles Blair Macdonald of Chicago, a Grace family heir who was smitten by the game on a visit to St. Andrews as a young man. (Old Tom Morris was one of his golf tutors.) Later in life, building the first truly great golf course in the United States became an obsession for him. He put together a group of 70 men who put up $1,000 each to finance the construction of such a course, which came to be known as the National Golf Links of America. Robert T. Lincoln — son of the president, former secretary of war, president of the Pullman Palace Car Company — ponied up along with 69 others. His name is on a roll in the club's manly clubhouse.

James Emerson, a Lincoln historian, has done some superb research, borrowed here, on Robert Lincoln's interest in golf. Writing for The Lincoln Forum, Emerson notes that Macdonald introduced Lincoln to golf in 1893 and later became a founding member of the Chicago Golf Club.

What Macdonald did for Lincoln, Lincoln did for Marshall Field. (A commonly seen pattern in the study of addictive behavior.) In fact, Field, founder of the department store chain, died of pneumonia on January of 1906, 16 days after a New Year's Day round in a group that included Lincoln.

Macdonald, who wrote about golf with majestic authoritarianism, once described a better-ball round with Lincoln thusly: "I cautioned my partner to take an iron, with which he was extremely good, and not his driver, with which he had been playing erratically. Nothing daunted, he exclaimed, `I shall take my driver,' with the determination, so far as I could see, of reaching the green off the tee. Taking a mighty swipe at the ball, he sliced badly to the right onto a tennis court." And this kicker: "Robert Lincoln was most depressed." It is unlikely that Herbert Warren Wind himself could have improved upon that report.

Lincoln was the president of a club in Vermont, Ekwanok, where he persuaded the club to allow Sunday golf. (Old Tom was always opposed to it.) He played often, not well, all over the country, with senators and presidents and businessmen. It was surely a life that his father could not possibly have imagined.

When Macdonald asked Lincoln to be a founding member of National Golf Links, Lincoln wrote, "Of course I'll give you $1,000. The golf that you have taught me has saved me that much a year in doctors' bills, and I am perfectly confident it will add years to my life."

Emerson notes that Lincoln, in his own letters, mocks his golf skill, and that there were eight golf instruction books in the library of his Vermont home. Emerson writes, "Lincoln was friends and had golfed with all of these expert authors, but the book he found most useful was Taylor on Golf, which Lincoln heavily annotated in the margins of the sections on perfecting your swing and stabilizing your putts."

That Taylor is the English Hall of Famer J.H. Taylor, one-third of the Great Triumvirate, a founder of the British Professional Golfers Association. Writing about Taylor and this early PGA, Bernard Darwin said that Taylor "had turned a feckless company into a self-respecting and respected body of men."

Darwin was an eminent British golf writer and a grandson of Charles Darwin. Darwin was also on property at the National Golf Links in 1922, when the first Walker Cup was played. He was there to cover the matches. When a British player fell ill, Darwin was pressed into duty as a player. On Saturday at the Walker Cup, people were wondering whether the son of the man who wrote the Gettysburg Address witnessed any of the golf played by the grandson of the man who wrote On the Origin of Species. Could have happened. In any event, Darwin went 1-1. Had Darwin and Lincoln met at National's bar, there would have been no shortage of mutual interest. They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but golf is even better at it.