Golf is almost always there. You can always go golfing, or think about golfing, or practice golfing, or think about practicing golfing. You can play golf at home, or you can play golf when you’re away. Many people can play golf at work, and many people–Ken Lay, for example–work while they play golf. You can also drink and play golf, and you can gamble and play golf, and, as many elites have discovered, you can drink and work and gamble and play golf, all in one tax-deductible, Dick Cheney-defended outing. But golf can more than be played–it can be endlessly discussed. There are strategies and tactics, equipment and terrain; legends and lore and hallowed grounds. Sex may be a more primally interesting subject, but sex really doesn’t require quite so many accessories, and your companions’ tolerance for hearing your stories about whatever is the equivalent of landing in a bunker or being stuck in the rough or messing up a two-foot putt is substantially lower. Perhaps only war affords more various topics of conversation, but I believe that I will live long enough to see the birth of a new biathalon combining golf with live fire, and because it will be more interesting than watching drones obliterate SUVs, golf will eventually surpass war. Furthermore, golf has many rules, which many people observe and many more observe when others are looking, which means that golf attains in some minds the equivalence of a moral code. Finally, many people find golf fun. Or have at least convinced themselves that they do.
Golf can also be written about, which is a tremendous boon to children of all ages who feel that they must, however grudgingly, observe Father’s Day, the most manufactured, “yeah, right” holiday on our calendar. Golf is an activity that has been brilliantly present-ized. Many people have grown rich designing items in the $20-$50 range–golf shirts, golf caps, golf gloves, golf-ball-imprinted ties, and so on–that can be easily obtained and tossed into Dad’s lap on the third Sunday in June. Publishers have grasped this, and the six or seven weeks before Father’s Day has become golf book season in your bookstore.
Among the offerings this year are First Off The Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters From Taft to Bush, by Don Van Natta Jr. of The New York Times, and Who’s Your Caddy?, by Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. The two authors have very distinct personalities–Reilly is a professional cut-up who seems contractually bound to deliver two jokes every three sentences, while Van Natta is a very fine investigative journalist who brings to his work the seriousness of a hog hunting for truffles. Both, however, believe the same thing: that through his golf game is the inner man revealed.
“Almost everything is revealed on a golf course–a player’s shortcomings and strengths, most of all, but other subtleties of personality and foibles of character that you may never see across a desk,” writes Van Natta. “Because so few presidents could play with any consistency, the game presents itself as a clear prism to view how these powerful men tried to cope with all that can go wrong.”
I guess. But of course all human behavior reveals character, and while we might learn a great deal about our presidents from their golfing–and make no mistake, Van Natta thinks he’s got the Rosetta Stone here–one might fairly wonder if we wouldn’t learn as much about their inner lives from watching how they get through a weekend with their in-laws or what rides they avoid at Disney World or conducting an in-depth audit of their tax returns. Indeed, there may be less predictive power about their presidencies in watching how they golf than in watching whom they golf with. It’s true that you can see the combination of awkwardness and determination that characterized Richard Nixon’s golf game as a reflection of the awkwardness and determination he displayed in his political career, but you can also see that same awkwardness and determination displayed when he was courting Pat. She decided she wanted to date another fellow, so Nixon chauffeured them. It’s more reflection than revelation.
This is clearest in the book’s most entertaining chapter, an account of the round of golf Van Natta played with ex-president Bill Clinton. There was some history between the two: When Clinton was in the White House, Van Natta investigated Clinton’s suspiciously low golf scores. He found that the president made liberal use of do-overs and practice shots to deflate his score by approximately 15 strokes. This article appeared in the midst of Clinton’s scandals, and was one of a number of tough articles Van Natta wrote about Clinton. It was, however, the only one Clinton objected to, leading Van Natta to conclude that the president cared more about being accused of cheating at golf than cheating on his wife. Van Natta freely admits to being a bit star-struck playing with Clinton, and falls under the spell of his adversary’s easy-going, live-and-let-live approach to keeping score. He ends up concluding that golf thus reveals Clinton to be an untrustworthy charmer. (Like you needed to step onto a fairway to know that!) You wonder what Van Natta could find out if he sat Clinton down with a Magic 8 Ball.
While the book’s central thesis may be a little overstated, it’s still entertaining for all the cool presidential golf trivia it includes. Didja know that Woodrow Wilson was golfing when he heard about the sinking of the Lusitania? That Warren Harding was called off a golf course to sign the documents officially ending World War I? That there was a golf-ball-shaped cigarette lighter on FDR’s desk when he declared war against Japan? That Reagan was on a golf outing at Augusta when he heard of the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut? Huh? Didja? Huh? Van Natta sees this Zelig-like omnipresence as a sign that golfing has deeply insinuated itself into the warp and woof of American history. I think it’s a sign that even presidents must sometimes grope for things to talk about.
Van Natta also manages to include some offbeat material, including Nixon’s laugh-out-loud observation that golf was JFK’s “secret vice.” Imagine what a donkey Sy Hersh must feel like now–almost 500 pages of The Dark Side of Camelot about sex, drugs, and mob connections, and he missed Jack’s secret vice. Van Natta also manages to wedge in the most famous quote about vice presidential golf, namely Marilyn Quayle’s observation that “Dan Quayle would rather play golf than have sex any day.” One is tempted to make an unkind remark here, but it’s too hard to choose among the candidates. And fortunately, the book went to press late enough to include George W. Bush’s contribution to presidential golf–his post-suicide-bombing comment from the links on Kennebunkport: “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.” One nugget is missing: While Van Natta makes use of Patrick Buchanan’s memoir Right From The Beginning to discuss Nixon’s awkward swing–when Pat was 15, he caddied for the then-vice president–he neglected to include another of Buchanan’s recollections, namely, watching as Nixon peed in the bushes. In a case of almost literary foreshadowing, by the way, Pat immediately followed suit.
Rick Reilly’s whole book is something like the Clinton chapter in Van Natta’s: His idea was to go golfing with a number of famous people and tell about it, except his idea is not to golf with them, but to caddy for them. Reilly ended up caddying for a number of professional golfers, including Jack Nicklaus, as well as Donald Trump, Deepak Chopra, and Bob Newhart. Among the things the reader will get from this book is an understanding that caddying is a helluva lot harder than it looks. All of those who have been taken in by the glamorous fantasy of donning a pair of overalls and traipsing after people dressed like Ken dolls will be disabused here. Not only do you have to lug the clubs, but you also have to be part diplomat, part psychologist, part tactician, and part doormat. Still, caddying at the highest level can be quite lucrative. The caddies earn a fee for working a tournament, plus a percentage–typically 7 percent–of their lord and master’s winnings. Reilly didn’t take any money for any of his caddying efforts–I presume he’s getting something from the publisher–but at one tournament, caddying for a pro who finished 13th, his take would have been an $1,800 fee plus a $4,550 share of the winnings.
The best chapter in this generally lively book is the one about Deepak Chopra. It starts off strongly: Reilly meets Chopra on a 45-degree day. Reilly has wrapped himself in layers, but Chopra appears in a short-sleeved cotton shirt. When Reilly wonders if Chopra isn’t cold, Chopra says no, he’s a trained swami and knows how to maintain his own temperature. “It’s very simple, really. You simply imagine a bonfire in your rectum.” Chopra is interesting because, unlike the other golf-lovers in the book, he doesn’t much care about keeping score. “One should play golf the way one plays the game of life,” he says at one point. “You can’t get caught up in the ego.” Reilly accepts this, but there’s a slight tonal difference in this chapter. He doesn’t disrespect Chopra, but it’s clear he has much more respect for the people who are either good players or want to be. It’s interesting that something similar happens in Van Natta’s book. Lyndon Johnson didn’t golf very much, and was pretty bad at it. But when he did golf, he strode around the course, happily whacking the ball a couple hundred times as he completed his round. If he didn’t like his shot, he took another–although, unlike Clinton, LBJ never pretended to approach par. Van Natta disdains this approach; for him, it’s not a case of somebody goofing around, it’s a violation of the spirit of the game. He far prefers the competitiveness shown by the other Hackers-in-Chief, but there he’s not unusual. To most of the pros and the amateurs in these books, and to their authors, and to most golfers at large, scores do matter. Perhaps that’s why all the Shrevies of the world have found some semblance of satisfaction in its grip.