Not long ago, both the Economist and the New Yorker magazines featured unflattering cover portraits of President Trump holding a golf club. Both seemed to suggest the president had found himself in a rough patch. While that may be true politically, Trump is very much at home on the golf course — which is not surprising, since he owns 17 of them.
Whatever historians ultimately write on his presidential scorecard, Trump may be the best golfer ever to occupy the Oval Office.
“He’s won club championships. Of course, they’ve all been at his clubs,” says Jaime Diaz, a senior writer at Golf Digest and editor in chief at Golf World.
Diaz, who’s played with Trump on a couple of occasions, says the president golfs the way he governs: largely by instinct. But his swing is not as reckless as it might appear.
“He has this sort of bombastic image, obviously. Well-earned. And you’d expect someone who probably has kind of a sort of a show-offy, ego-driven kind of game. But in fact, it’s a game of control,” Diaz says.
At age 70, Trump typically shoots in the 70s or low 80s. Plaques at his golf clubs say Trump has even hit a couple of holes-in-one. (And that’s not counting his long-shot drive for the White House.)
John F. Kennedy was probably the second-best golfing president, though he didn’t play much in public. Kennedy tried to distance himself from his golf-crazy predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. The first time Kennedy walked into the Oval Office, he was surprised to find cleat marks on the battered hardwood floor.
“President Eisenhower would pace back and forth with his golf spikes on before he went out to the putting green to chip and putt a little bit in the morning,” says historian Mike Trostel of the United States Golf Association.
Nowadays, that hardwood floor is covered. And that’s not the only way modern presidents try to sweep their golfing habits under the rug.
While Trump spends hours at his own golf courses, aides rarely reveal whom he’s playing with or even confirm that he’s playing at all. Before he was president himself, Trump often criticized President Obama’s time on the links — though he recently told a group of lawmakers that’s only because Obama didn’t use the time to cut deals.
“I always said about President Obama, it’s great to play golf. But play with heads of countries,” Trump said. “Don’t play with your friends that you play with every week.”
“We had a great day with the president today,” Paul said afterwards. “We did talk about health care reform. I think the sides are getting closer and closer together. ”
Lyndon Johnson also used the golf course as one more venue for arm-twisting, whereas Obama rarely talked politics during a round, except maybe the one time he played with House Speaker John Boehner.
Historian Trostel says in the last century, all but three U.S. presidents have spent time on the golf course. (Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter were the holdouts, although Trostel recently discovered that Carter played some in the military.)
Different presidents exhibit a wide variety of styles. George H.W. Bush raced around the course in less than two hours. A round with Bill Clinton could drag on half the day.
By far the most prolific presidential golfer was Woodrow Wilson, who played nearly every day but Sunday — some 1600 rounds — including all through World War I.
“In the winter time he had Secret Service agents paint golf balls red so he could practice in the snow,” Trostel says.
By comparison, Eisenhower played about 800 rounds during his two terms in office. And Obama played 333, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who keeps an unofficial but authoritative tally of all presidential statistics. Trump is on pace to exceed Obama’s golf total, and he could match Eisenhower’s. It’s doubtful, though, that he’ll come anywhere close to Wilson’s record.
For today’s presidents, the golf course is loaded with political sand traps, including accusations that they’re slacking off or isolating themselves in a ritzy country club.
But Golf Digest’s Diaz suspects there are real payoffs too: an opportunity to relax and clear one’s head, and for Trump, a chance to hit the pause button on the constant self-promotion.
“I didn’t sense he needed to tell you how good he was when he played golf,” Diaz says. “I think he was confident about it and he let his actions speak for themselves. In some ways, that might be his best self, out on the golf course.”