Sissy game no handicap to occupants of Oval Office
Barack Obama is latest in a long line of golfers in the White House, writes Dermot Gilleece
While looking towards the new, we note the old golfing year has ended with a record from a most unexpected source. It seems that last Monday in his native Hawaii, US President Barack Obama set a personal best of 32 golf outings for 2011, outstripping the totals for his first two years in office.
Whatever about the American voters who will be going to the polls late this year, Obama's obvious enthusiasm for the game would probably have prompted alarm bells for a celebrated predecessor, John F Kennedy. Though a very capable practitioner who represented Harvard at the game, Kennedy was advised to keep such activities quiet, because of the excessive and, some claimed, damaging attention which Dwight D Eisenhower drew to his golf.
Which would explain Kennedy's curious reaction having broken from a whistle-stop tour of California during the 1960 US presidential campaign for a golf game at Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula. There, he watched in horror as a seven-iron shot at the short, 139-yard 15th looked like going straight into the hole.
While his playing partner cheered the prospect of an ace, Kennedy, by his own admission, was watching "a promising political career coming to an end." He later explained: "If that ball had gone into that hole, the word would have got out to the nation in less than an hour that another golfer was trying to get in the White House."
At the beginning of the last century, outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt expressed rather different concerns about golf to his successor, William Howard Taft, claiming it was "too much of a sissy game for a public man." But an Irish professional, Patrick J Doyle from Delgany, changed Taft's mind and in the process could claim credit for launching a distinguished line of American golfing presidents.
Almost every resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the beginning of the 20th century has shared an interest in golf. In fact, of the 18 presidents from Taft in 1909 to the incumbent, only three -- Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter -- failed to enjoy the game in one form or another. For his own part, the generously-rounded Taft did much to popularise it. And Doyle, Eamonn Darcy's great-uncle who lived to the grand old age of 92, became the first presidential golf tutor, having emigrated in 1912 to the New World where he developed a fine reputation as a playing and teaching professional.
With the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic due to be commemorated in a few months, it is fascinating to note that Doyle had booked a passage on the doomed liner after deciding to emigrate to the US as a 23-year-old. As it happened, his train from Dublin was late arriving in Queenstown (now Cobh) and the Titanic had already put to sea by the time it pulled into the station.
Doyle was professional-cum-greenkeeper at Delgany GC in September 1909 when the great Harry Vardon played a 36-hole exhibition match there against Irish champion Michael 'Dyke' Moran. It is possible he and Vardon talked then about travelling to the US, because it later emerged that the Channel Islander also booked passage on the Titanic which he was forced to cancel because of illness.
In the event, he and Doyle met again in September 1913 as fellow competitors in the US Open at Brookline. That was where Vardon sensationally lost a play-off to the local amateur Francis Ouimet and Doyle was seven strokes back in 10th place to record the highest finish by a native Irishman in the blue riband of American golf.
President Kennedy's concerns about his public image as a golfer seemed to ease considerably once in office, though he studiously avoided becoming a member of Washington's Burning Tree GC, a favourite haunt of politicians, in favour of Chevy Chase GC, where he was less likely to be spotted. He owned several sets of clubs, one of which was a gift from Taoiseach Seán Lemass during a visit to the White House. And he was also responsible for arguably the most delayed assessment by a professional in the history of the game.
In the summer of 1963, about six months before his assassination, Kennedy let it be known that he dearly wished to have America's idol, Arnold Palmer, assess his game. But it never happened. Recalling the circumstances 48 years later, Palmer said recently: "I was scheduled to play him (JFK) at Palm Beach Country Club, I think, in 1963, but I got a call that he couldn't play, that his back was bad. So that was that."
Palmer only recently got to see films of Kennedy in golfing action. As it happens, the great man has golf-related photographs of himself with presidents Eisenhower, George HW Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, but none with JFK, who was widely regarded as the most naturally-gifted golfer to inhabit the White House. In fact, he and Palmer never even met.
"It's hard to compare Ike and JFK, because Ike was a much older man when I played with him, whereas Kennedy's in his mid-40s," said Palmer after seeing the film. "Clinton's swing might be a little bit more athletic [than JFK's]. Not much more so, just a little bit. I played with Clinton the other day, at Trump's course in New York. Clinton can hit it, but you never know what zip code he's going to hit it into."
Clinton made his own contribution to golfing relations between here and the US by appointing JFK's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, as US ambassador to this country. During her time in office, she took a great interest in the game, becoming an honorary member of the Glasson and Dunmore East clubs.
Clinton was also responsible for the restoration of the White House putting green, which had been built during the Eisenhower administration but was removed in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon was in power. The work cost the US taxpayers nothing, insofar as all machinery, materials and manpower were donated.
Meanwhile, he has regularly enjoyed our golfing terrain and, having played Royal Dublin in 2005, made a return visit there last October in the company of Pádraig Harrington and U2's The Edge. His caddie on both occasions was Anto Birney, the club's much-loved starter, who was happy to accept payment in dollars from one of the security entourage.
Now it's time to say goodbye to 2011, prompted by Tennyson's words: 'The year is going, let him go'. And with the centenaries of Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan this year, we prepare to celebrate America's ongoing contribution to a game we helped them appreciate. Happy New Year!
Sunday Indo Sport