Obama’s handicap

Barack Obama and John Boehmer take a round of golf. Photo by Flickr user TalkMediaNews used under a CC license 2.0


Comment: On Saturday 18 June US President Barack Obama played a historical round of golf with John Boehner, the Republican leader in Congress. Never before has a sitting president invited his strongest opponent for a round of golf.

The closest we get is Lyndon B. Johnson's golfing with Republican senators in the mid-1960s. He hoped they would vote for his civil rights legislation. Now it is the U.S. economy, the health reform, the war in Libya and the withdrawal from Afghanistan which is at stake. The question is whether golf helps.

Boehner the challenger
In most media it was said that it was Obama who challenged Boehner. This is wrong. It was Boehner who challenged Obama in January when he took over as the majority leader in Congress. Boehner was full of confidence as the Republicans took over the House of Representatives and gleefully offered Obama a handicap advantage should he jump on the challenge. Boehner has a golf handicap of between 5 and 8, while Obama is in the 20's. No wonder Obama paired with Vice President Joe Biden – a person on the top 150 list in Washington, with a handicap of 6.3. Boehner brought Ohio Governor John Kasich (handicap unknown).

Some news media labelled this round of golf as golf diplomacy, and some wonder if this casual meeting between the two political enemies might resolve disagreements between Democrats and Republicans (bipartisanship). Judging on the photos from the session the atmosphere between the two looks good. The question is whether this continues after the golf clubs are back in the bag.

Golf – a winning course
Golf has - literally - played a central role for U.S. presidents. 15 of the 18 past presidents have played golf regularly. William Howard Taft was the first, Dwight Eisenhower was the most enthusiastic (with about 800 rounds in 8 years), and George W. Bush took the greatest chances on the golf course - as he did in foreign policy. Only three U.S. presidents since Taft have not played golf (Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter).

Although Jimmy Carter is the only president who has beaten a golf-playing candidate (Gerald Ford) in a presidential election, none of those with no interest in playing golf were re-elected. The list of presidential candidates who have not played golf include Al Gore, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale.

Golf and political skills
The way presidential golfers play has often mirrored their character as politicians. Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were cheaters on the golf course. Clinton created the concept Billigan (a Clinton version of Mulligan) because he kept on with his first shot until he was satisfied. John F. Kennedy played stylish and good golf, but secretly, because he would not be connected to the upper class (as secret as his mistresses?), while George W. Bush, as already mentioned, is known for taking chances on the golf course.

Fixed results?
George Bush senior said that the biggest difference between being a sitting president and a retired president was that when his term had ended, people stopped letting him win. Although the round of golf between Obama and Boehner - with the exception of the first hole – was closed to the press, rumour has it that Boehner and Obama shared the victory and both received $ 2 each from the other two participants. It appears that Boehner took a few extras just to avoid humiliating the Commander in Chief...

More than a fistful of dollars
Judged by his golf interest (and skills) Obama is well on track to be re-elected in 2012. The front runner of the Republicans is Mitt Romney and his golf skills are a mystery. His handicap is unknown. If that means he is not a golf player his presidential career looks bleak. The battle for presidency in the United States is about more than a fistful of dollars. Should the golf diplomacy between Obama and Boehner end at the 18th hole at Andrews Air Force Base Boehner may turn out to be a dangerous opponent to Obama if he runs for the presidential seat. At least according to statistics...

Read more about U.S. Presidents’ passion for golf in the brilliant book First Off the Tee (2003), Don Van Jr. Night., New York, Public Affairs

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 21 June 2011. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on

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