VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. – American presidents love golf – 15 of the last 18 have played – and Barack Obama is an eager member of that club.
He’s played golf on four of six days since arriving on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard last Saturday. The White House never releases his scores and generally does not allow news coverage of his games – although it did allow the press to watch him briefly once this week.
Tiger Woods played with Obama in Florida last February and said at the time that the left-handed president hits the ball well.
“If he ever spent – after these four years – spent more time playing the game of golf, I’m sure he could get to where he’s a pretty good stick,” Woods said. “He’s got an amazing touch. He can certainly chip and putt.”
Obama’s interest in golf dates back to his high school years when he started playing in Hawaii. Later, golf was a pastime during the eight, sometimes frustrating, years he spent as an Illinois senator.
Democrats were the minority party when Obama took his Illinois Senate seat in January 1997. Majority Republicans hardly ever sought them out and paid scant attention to their priorities. So when he had free time, Obama often joined fellow senators and lobbyist friends on golf courses in the state capital of Springfield.
“When you’re in the minority you have a lot of time on your hands because nobody is seeking you out for advice or votes,” said state Sen. Terry Link, who took his seat the same year as Obama. “So what we did is we decided to start playing golf when the weather broke and we were still down” in Springfield. They tried to play a couple of times a week, he said.
“We played and worked on his game and eventually he got a little bit better,” Link said. “I guess he plays a lot more than he used to or I think he’d like to play a lot more than he could.”
Phil Manning, a lobbyist Obama played with, said “it was a healthy outlet” for blowing off steam.
Competitive at athletics, Obama paid for private instruction to help his game, Link said.
Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and moved to Washington. By 2007, he was a candidate for president, winning the race in 2008 and re-election last year.
Being in the White House seems to have deepened Obama’s love of the game.
He’s has played 137 rounds of golf as president in the past four and a half years, including at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the Army’s Fort Belvoir in Virginia, during family vacations to Hawaii and Martha’s Vineyard, and elsewhere, according to meticulous records kept by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.
Many of the presidents who played golf wrestled with the image of themselves playing in front of cameras, according to Don Van Natta’s 2003 book, “First off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush.”
George W. Bush quit playing golf in the fall of 2003, after 2½ years in office, saying it was inappropriate for the commander in chief to be seen playing while Americans were fighting and dying in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Golf suffers from its reputation as a sport for the elite — the same perception the Columbia and Harvard-educated Obama has pushed back against throughout his political career.
It’s partly for these reasons that White House officials, even former members who’ve played with Obama, decline to discuss his golf game.
Obama has said the hours he spends walking from hole to hole or driving the golf cart, as he did this week, are special for someone who is always surrounded by a tight knot of armed security personnel and military aides who drive or fly him practically everywhere he goes.
“It is the only time that, for six hours, first of all, that I’m outside, and second of all, you almost feel normal in the sense that you’re not in the bubble,” he told CBS News shortly after taking office in 2009. “There are a whole bunch of Secret Service guys, but they’re sort of in the woods. And when you’re up there in the tee box and you’re hacking away and hitting some terrible shot and your friends are laughing at you, you know, it feels as though, you know, you’re out of the container.”
On Golf Digest’s June 2011 list of the top 150 Washington golfers, Obama was tied for 108th place with Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., behind House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Vice President Joe Biden. He was eighth, behind Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, on the magazine’s January 2009 ranking of the 15 presidents who played golf.