Ranking the Most Accomplished Golfers Among US Presidents
Golf and the presidency have long been intertwined. Many of our strongest occupants of the Oval Office have carried a passion for playing and promoting the game, both during their time in the White House and beyond it.
For some, it’s the competition, while for others it’s an escape from the unimaginable pressures of leading the free world. Whatever the motivation, the sport has long been as significant to presidents as they have been to the game itself.
Some are judged by their proficiency at the sport, while others for their larger contributions to it. The really special ones have made a memorable imprint on both.
Among those is President John F. Kennedy, who by most accounts is the best golfer to have ever lived in the White House. On Nov. 22, the country will remember and mourn the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. It will also celebrate the man who led us to the moon, successfully navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis, fought for civil rights and other social change, and uplifted a nation during difficult times.
It’s an appropriate time to remember just how good a golfer the 35th president was, and just how much he respected and enjoyed the game. It’s also an opportunity to acknowledge the short list of presidents who, to one extent or another, have left an indelible mark on the game.
In honor of Kennedy, a leader taken far too soon, here are the top presidential golfers who have had significant impacts on the sport.
7. Gerald Ford, 38th President (1974-77)
Like many right-leaning presidents, Ford was a relatively easy target for the national media, which often depicted him as a clumsy and klutzy man who was in over his head both in and out of the Oval Office.
Those issues aside, Ford was passionate about the game of golf and often shot in the 80s. More importantly, the former president, who assumed office after Richard Nixon resigned in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, did more than his share to promote the game both while in office and after he left it.
Ford—a former football player—did wonders for the United States Golf Association by being the first to register for its members program in an Oval Office ceremony in 1975. He was the honorary chairman of the first Presidents Cup back in 1994.
Some of his most memorable moments in the sport, however, came through his relationship with legendary entertainer Bob Hope, whom Ford typically partnered with during the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic years ago.
While the two were good friends, the humorous entertainer never hesitated to take well-intentioned shots at his political pal, which only added to Ford’s popularity and effect on the game.
“Whenever I play with him, I usually try to make it a foursome,” Hope is quoted as saying about Ford. “The President, myself, a paramedic and a faith healer.”
Anyone who has ever played in a pro-am or well-attended charity event understands the fear of pelting unsuspecting spectators with a misguided golf ball. The 38th president of the United States was the Oval Office poster boy of that tendency.
Ford is well-known for hitting spectators with his wayward golf shots, and unfortunately, several of those incidents were caught on camera, adding to the image of the president as a clumsy man and lesser golfer than he actually was.
Politics can be a dangerous game, but watching the former president play the sport from outside the ropes could be just as dangerous.
“I would like to deny all allegations by Bob Hope that during my last game of golf, I hit a birdie, an eagle, an elk and a moose.”—Gerald Ford.
“I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.”—Gerald Ford.
6. George W. Bush, 43rd President (2001-2009)
Like Ford, Bush didn't get much credit for his intellect or ability as an orator during his time as president. That notwithstanding, few commanders in chief can claim to be as enthusiastic a sports fan as Bush, which includes his dedication to the game of golf.
Not only did he own the Texas Rangers for a period of time, the 43rd president is an ardent golf fan who understands the sport's significant impact on society as much as any who’s held the office in the past century.
Given the challenges he faced during his tenure, Bush didn't play as often as other leaders before and after him. In fact, Bush stopped playing entirely in 2003 because he didn't want to appear insensitive to the war going on in Iraq. Since leaving office in 2009, however, he has carried on his family's strong support of the game.
For the past three years, Bush has hosted the Warrior Open in Irving, Texas, a 36-hole charity event that benefits wounded warriors from the armed forces and others who have been hurt in the fight against terror.
In addition to that, Bush has followed in his father’s footsteps as a prominent supporter of The First Tee Program and the prestigious Walker Cup, which was created by his maternal great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker.
A Fun Fact
In a classic case of strange bedfellows, Bush recently found himself defending President Barack Obama, a significant critic of his presidency during the Republican's second term in office.
Since succeeding Bush in 2009, Obama has been accused by many on the right for playing too much golf rather than tending to the matters of running the country.
Instead of joining in on the criticism a couple months ago, the former Texas governor defended Obama's penchant for playing the game, pointing out the stress of the job and the release the sport can ultimately provide.
"I see our president criticized for playing golf, I don't, I think he ought to play golf. I know what it's like to be in the bubble and I know the pressures of the job. To be able to get outside and play golf with some of your pals is important for the president."—George W. Bush told NBC Sport’s Jimmy Roberts.
"The example of these folks out here today is an important example for our fellow citizens. You can either be defeated or defeat your injury. They all have chosen to defeat.”—George W. Bush to ABC News’ Josh Elliott during the Warrior Open.
5. Barack Obama, 44th President (2009 to Present)
Not since Eisenhower has there been a president who plays as much golf as Barack Obama has in his first five years in office.
A significant sports fan, Obama was credited with hitting the links more often in his initial nine months in office than his predecessor George W. Bush did in his eight years as president. As of this past September, Obama is reported to have played 140 rounds of golf—or an average of 2.5 times a month since taking office back in January 2009 (per USA Today's Chris Chase).
Given that, the athletic president, who also enjoys playing basketball just as much as golf, has been the subject of many stories surrounding his golf trips to Florida, dozens and dozens of rounds at Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Belvoir, and overall unapologetic nature for time spent on the links and away from the Oval Office.
In addition to his golf acumen, the 44th president has also promoted the game beyond his own enjoyment, supporting the Presidents Cup during his two tenures in office and promoting the First Tee Program as well.
The most powerful golfer in the world recently teed it up at one of the most revered Florida courses made famous by Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase years ago.
Earlier this month, Obama played Grande Oaks Golf Club in Florida, home course to the cult classic film Caddyshack, which remains among the greatest golf movies ever made some 30 years after its original release.
As if that wasn't enough to make for a memorable day at the ritzy Fort Lauderdale club, the president was joined by former NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning for the 18-hole outing. It was the second star-studded round for Obama this year after teeing it up with Tiger Woods in Florida several months ago.
There’s playing golf, and then there’s playing golf in style like only Obama can.
“That’s probably for the best because if I started playing better everyone would be suspicious that I’m not working very hard.”—President Barack Obama, telling Fred Couples earlier this year that his golf game hasn't improved since they first met in 2009.
4. Bill Clinton, 42nd President (1993 to 2001)
Bill Clinton has loved and promoted the game of golf as much as any president, even if his respect for at least some of the sport’s rules were often called into question.
Clinton, who has played with top PGA Tour stars such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and, most recently, Rory McIlroy throughout his political career, has been known to take more than his fair share of mulligans to the point many changed the term to taking a "Billigan."
Yet, while one would want to keep a close eye on the 42nd president in a high stakes match-play tussle, there’s no denying the Democrat’s appreciation for the game he’s played since the age of 12. Indeed, the sport has always held a significant place for Clinton, who reportedly was playing to a 10 handicap a year after leaving office (no confirmation on whether that included a mulligan).
The former president has also remained front and center in the sport through his William J. Clinton Foundation, which supports the PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge, the successor to the popular Bob Hope Classic at La Quinta Country Club in California.
In part through its partnership with the event, the Clinton Foundation helps strengthen health systems in developing countries, fights climate change and helps Americans, including children, lead healthier lives.
One of Clinton’s favorite moments on the golf course came years ago while playing with the great Nicklaus and former President Ford in Vail.
During the round, Clinton out-drove Nicklaus on a par-five—the only time he bested the Golden Bear off the tee during the round. He went on to miss a relatively short eagle putt after reaching the green in two, but that didn't put a damper on the small-but-memorable accomplishment.
“I out-drove Nicklaus only once, by a yard. It was one of the happiest moments of my golfing life,” said Clinton.
“Golf is like life in a lot of ways. All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted.”—President Bill Clinton.
3. John F. Kennedy, 35th President (1961-63)
Had Kennedy not been robbed of so many years of his life, there’s no telling exactly how influential the 35th president could have been to the game.
Undeniably, there was a lot more golf left in the Massachusetts native, and his passion for the sport would have continued long after he left the White House.
Kennedy, however, didn't get that opportunity to live beyond his trip to Dallas in 1963, yet that doesn't change the fact that he's among the most significant golfing presidents we've seen during the past 50-plus years.
Given how frequently Eisenhower played before him, Kennedy was reticent to let the American people see him playing golf early in his tenure. Yet as time went on, the president became more comfortable and afforded the public a true glimpse of just how important the game was to him and how proficient he could be at it.
When his chronic back pain allowed, the dynamic leader had a graceful swing that, by most accounts, afforded him a single-digit handicap, certainly the best of the golfers on this list.
Unfortunately, Kennedy didn't get the opportunity to do for the game what so many other presidents have after leaving office. That said, his appreciation of the sport, ability to play it and his influence on the American people certainly warrant his place as a significant contributor to golf's growth and popularity during his time in office.
In August 1963, Kennedy was looking to improve his golf game and was preparing to turn to a king for the help he desired—as in golf great Arnold Palmer.
According to a Sports Illustrated report, the president called upon a White House photographer to take silent film of him while practicing at Hyannisport Club in Massachusetts, and the plan was to have Palmer come to the White House and review the tape with him later that year.
“It is true that my predecessor did not object, as I do, to pictures of one's golf skill in action. But neither, on the other hand, did he ever bean a Secret Serviceman.”—President John F. Kennedy on his preference not to be seen playing golf during his early years in office.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President (1953-61)
One could argue that Eisenhower belongs at the top of this list and would have a very strong case to be made; few men of such power have done more to popularize the sport.
While many presidents (Obama notwithstanding) preferred to limit their play while in office and stay away from the cameras when they did, Eisenhower made no such efforts. In fact, estimates say he played in the neighborhood of 800 rounds of golf during his two terms in office, making him a true Golfer in Chief.
The president played the top golf courses in the country, but is best remembered as a 21-year member of Augusta National, where he often traveled to during his time in office. When he couldn't get to the golf course, however, Eisenhower finished many of his stressful days by working on his putting and short game on a practice green he had installed on the White House grounds.
Though never a great golfer, the former Army linebacker and running back, managed to make himself into a good player with a handicap that shifted between 14 and 18. Yet, it was his dedication to the game and willingness to let the American people see him play that helped to grow the sport during his years in office.
In 2009, Eisenhower became the first-ever president to be elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame in the Lifetime Achievement Category.
During his time as a member of Augusta National, Eisenhower became increasingly displeased with a sizable tree that guarded the left side of the 17th fairway on the legendary course.
The 34th president found that loblolly pine with many a drive and, eventually, proposed its removal during a 1956 meeting of the club’s governors. It’s one of the few debates the president lost in his time; the tree still towers at the home of the Masters to this day.
It’s also got a name—The Eisenhower Tree.
"If (President Eisenhower) slices the budget like he slices a golf ball, the nation has nothing to worry about.”—Bob Hope.
“My constant prayer, these days, as I start my backswing is, ‘Oh, please let me swing slowly.’ The trouble is that sometimes I wonder whether I swing at all; whether I am strictly a chopper.”—President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a 1951 letter to Bobby Jones.
1. George H.W. Bush, 41st President (1989-93)
If there’s a presidential first family of golf, it would be the Bush clan, and George H.W. Bush would be the patriarch by a good measure.
The 41st president of the United States is not only in the World Golf Hall of Fame for his lifetime achievements in the game, but he has been a leader of the First Tee movement, a strong proponent of the Walker Cup and an honorary captain of the United States Presidents Cup team.
It’s anything but surprising that Bush would be such a central figure in the game considering his lineage. His father, Prescott Bush, was a past president of the USGA, as was his maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, who also established the prestigious Walker Cup.
Bush, however, has certainly carved his own path in the game that compares favorably with his significant political and humanitarian accomplishments.
The former vice president under Ronald Reagan was the original honorary chairman of The First Tee and earned the PGA of America Distinguished Service Award in 1997 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the PGA Tour in 2009. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.
In addition to his contributions to the sport, the one-term president was a solid golfer in his prime and managed to get his handicap as low as 11. He's also been known for his preference for fast play on the golf course.
Bush was soundly defeated in his bid for re-election by Clinton in 1992. Yet, some 13 years later the former political rivals would become close friends after working together on the 2005 Asian tsunami relief effort.
Considering how important golf is to both men, that friendship naturally spilled over to the course where the pair have often played together and shared prominent roles in the evolution of The Presidents Cup.
“I am a great believer in moving pretty fast around a golf course. Well, President Bush made sure that happened.”—Golf great and fellow World Golf Hall of Fame member Arnold Palmer on Bush’s quick pace of play.
“I do love the game.”—George H. W. Bush.