The Golfer-in-Chief

By |  October 24, 2016 0 Comments
President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoys a round of golf. photo by: getty images / Bettmann

President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoys a round of golf.
photo: getty images / Bettmann

From Eisenhower’s 800 rounds in eight years to Obama’s wedding crashing, golf and the POTUS has a long, rich history.

A helicopter circles overhead. The thump, thump, thump of its blades reverberate down onto the golf course turf as trees sway in the artificial wind. In the bushes framing the fairways, snipers stare through powerful riflescopes. On the practice tee, Secret Service agents in dark sunglasses hold a finger to their ears, listening. Inside the maintenance facility, bomb-sniffing dogs paw a serpentine path past greensmowers and around the mechanic’s bench.

Is this a scene from the latest Tom Cruise movie? Nah. It’s just another day at the office for golf course superintendents who host the president of the United States of America on their golf course.

Golfing Martha’s Vineyard

In the 21 years that Matthew Crowther, CGCS, has been the golf course superintendent at Mink Meadows Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, he’s hosted two presidents and a first lady. Then-sitting President Bill Clinton played his course once, along with First Lady Hillary Clinton, who is now running for the nation’s top office. Current President Barack Obama has played four or five times.

“My mentality, when I first started having presidential visits, was that it was like a special tournament. You want the course to be as prepared as possible, get as much mowed as you could, make sure the bunkers are raked right before them, make sure the cups are changed,” Crowther says.

He soon relaxed once it became more of a common occurrence, realizing that presidential golf rounds can be canceled at a moment’s notice, meaning all the extra prep could be for nothing.

The biggest difference in the post-9/11 world since the Clintons first played Mink Meadows is the level of security necessary to accommodate a presidential round of golf.

“The security is much tighter,” Crowther says. “The staff and the Secret Service come in probably a week before the president even arrives on the island and we just kind of run through the logistics of the property.”

This includes a run-through of the clubhouse, maintenance facility and other buildings, and designating an area for the press corps to hang out. “Most people don’t know this, but the press corps is probably 25 to 30 people,” he says. “There are usually that many people who follow him around all day every day, even when he’s playing golf.”

The last time President Obama played Mink Meadows, Crowther rode in a golf cart with a Secret Service agent to help determine who the people were along the edges of the fairways — property owners or guests of the club.

“The security is almost like a traveling bubble,” Crowther says. The Secret Service clears the course two holes in front of the president and two holes behind him. They may even have a foursome of Secret Service agents playing golf in between as a buffer.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford pose with Bob Hope at the 1995 Bob Hope Classic. photo courtesy careerBuilder challenge

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford pose with Bob Hope at the 1995 Bob Hope Classic.
photo: careerBuilder challenge

Still, despite all of the security, Crowther says both the Clintons and President Obama were incredibly cordial. He says in the old days before security was so tight, spectators would stand seven people deep around the fairways and roadways to say hello to Bill and Hillary. Today, the Secret Service groups people together in one spot on the side of fairways, and President Obama stops to shake hands and signs autographs. After every round, President Obama, who “has that athletic build so he’s got a very nice golf swing,” is known to greet everyone on the clubhouse porch and pose for pictures.

The Veep

The traveling bubble extends to the vice president as well. VP Joe Biden plays frequently at a club in the D.C. metro area. The superintendent of the club, who asked that he and his club remain anonymous, says the level of security changes according to whether the vice president’s round of golf is on his official schedule.

Scheduled events get the full Secret Service treatment, complete with dogs, snipers and helicopters. “The first time, it was a little overwhelming,” the superintendent recalls. “I wanted to say, ‘I’m out of here. That’s it. I’m not getting involved in this.’”

Vice President Joe Biden is a frequent golfer, once delaying a flight to China to hit balls. Irish Government photo via AP

Vice President Joe Biden is a frequent golfer, once delaying a flight to China to hit balls.
Irish Government photo via AP

But most of the time when Vice President Biden comes out to play, it’s considered his personal time and it’s a low-key affair. He comes out with his SUV, his sticks and that’s it.

“The first time I met him,” the superintendent says, “I shook his hand and asked if he needed anything. He was very cordial. He’s known as ‘Regular Joe’ and that’s what he is,” the superintendent says. “He’ll ask me about different bushes and trees, ask for advice about his lawn and his landscape.”

Golf course staff is trained to be courteous but to leave the ‘veep’ alone.

“We let the staff know he’s here to enjoy himself. He’s off the clock and not to be bothered with selfies. Treat him like any other golfer. You know, being ‘on’ all the time is tough. It’s not easy. So when he’s here, this is his personal time.”

How big of a golfer is the vice president? Well…

“I remember one time he came out and he was next to our maintenance shop. There’s a practice tee there. I noticed the Secret Service were a little more agitated than normal, so I asked what was going on. They looked at me and said, ‘We’re supposed to be on the plane to China right now, but he wanted to hit golf balls first.’”

No. 41 and No. 43

At Coral Creek Club in Placida, Fla., Superintendent Jackson Reiswig has hosted both George H.W. Bush (President #41) and his son George W. Bush (President #43). The family has a compound nearby in Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island where they spend the winter holidays, and both are club members. Reiswig hasn’t seen “41,” as he’s referred to at the golf course, in about five years because of the former president’s advanced age, but “43” plays four or five times a week in January.

Reiswig says the relationship with the former president is quite casual. He’s comfortable calling out to George W. Bush on the putting green, “What’s up today, Prez? How’re things going?” The former president also is friendly with the golf course crew, letting them hop into his golf cart to take selfies.

Matthew Crowther’s son Josh gets a handshake from President Barack Obama at Mink Meadows matthew crowther

Matthew Crowther’s son Josh gets a handshake from President Barack Obama at Mink Meadows GC.
photo: Matthew Crowther

“He’s just a regular guy out here,” Reiswig says. “Big cigars. Making games and betting and being loud. He’s a rich Texan and we have a good time with him.”

Sometimes, Reiswig says, he forgets that it’s all a big deal “unless you’re talking to someone about it. He’s a cool cat.”

Bush has been known to do more than just play a round of speed golf on the course.

“We’ve got a lot of elevation and terrain. What he’ll do is come in the morning to play golf, then he’ll come back at four or five in the afternoon and mountain bike on the crushed coquina shell cart paths. The guy books around the golf course. He pumps it. He’s got his posse behind him (Secret Service and a few family members), and he just goes and goes. He yells out at the guys on the crew and they yell back at him,” Reiswig says. “We got a phone call once from a member complaining that there was a band of hooligans riding around the golf course, and the pro shop girl said, ‘Actually, that’s George Bush!’”

Obama, Trump, Hillary

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton have been known to play a round together — and draw a crowd. photo: Matthew Crowther

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton have been known to play a round together — and draw a crowd.
photo: Matthew Crowther

Much has been said about how often President Obama plays golf. Two of his golf rounds made news because they interrupted weddings. In December of 2014, President Obama’s round of golf on the Marine Corps base in
Hawaii forced the wedding of two military members to be moved to a different location on the golf course. When the president heard he’d inconvenienced the couple, he called them. In a video that made the news, President Obama is heard on the phone saying, “Listen. Congratulations on your wedding. I feel terrible. Nobody told us.” Photos of the couple and their wedding party giddy over the call provide proof that the inconvenience was worth the call.

In October 2015, Obama’s round delayed a wedding at Torrey Pines. Once he finished his round, the president approached the wedding party and posed for pictures with the bride, groom and guests.

It’s well known that GOP candidate Donald Trump is an avid golfer and that he owns golf courses all over the world. What might not be as well known is that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has swung a club a time or two as well. She played alongside her husband that day long ago at Mink Meadows, and smilingly posed for photos with the club pro, Crowther and his family. The date is imprinted in Crowther’s memory because the day the Clintons played Mink Meadows was also the day Princess Diana died: Aug. 31, 1997.

Although the Clintons have played only once at Mink Meadows in the 21 years Crowther has been at the club, they played there frequently prior to his tenure.

“I was told by the Secret Service that at one time this was the only golf course she had ever played. She took lessons from my pro one year,” Crowther says.

Should either Trump or Clinton win the election, Crowther says one thing is clear: “Golf has been a part of the presidential lexicon. Having a president who plays golf is good for the game.”

This article is tagged with and posted in Columns, People

About the Author: Stacie Zinn Roberts

Stacie Zinn Roberts is a winner of multiple TOCA awards and is a frequent contributor to Golfdom. She lives in Mount Vernon, Wash.

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