Barack Obama and Golf: A Skeptical Analysis
August 5, 2014
The great thing about math is that it doesn't take sides. Whether or not something is greater or less than something else doesn't change at all based on what you happen to think about that thing.
A perfect example of this is President Barack Obama's hobby of playing golf. When hits the links, pundits on both sides of the aisle chime in with what they think about it, whether it's right for him to do it and how it looks to the rest of the world. And they're all right. And all wrong. It's a matter of opinion, and only that.
It's entirely acceptable to think that he plays far too much golf for a man of his stature, especially given the upheaval going on in the Middle East. It's also entirely acceptable to think that it's fine or even necessary for a person of his importance to have a hobby that allows him to relax and recharge. Either way, what you think is valid — except to the people who disagree with you.
But whether or not President Obama plays more golf than other presidents is not opinion, because that's in the realm of data. We can easily measure how much he plays against how much his predecessors played, and see who golfed the most.
So is President Obama America's Golfer in Chief? Let's let the math tell us. And by "math" I mean some simple metrics. We're not going to get too deep here, because the amount of data available for each president is different.
The website ObamaGolfCounter.com lists Obama as having played 176 rounds, while a Miami Herald article from June puts the total at 177. Just to be safe, we'll round up to 180. All his games are closed to the public, and usually played with the same small circle of friends and confidants.
He's been in office for 67 months, giving him an average of 2.69 rounds per month. We'll call that measurement RPM. To dig a little deeper, he played his 100th round in June 2012, 42 months into his presidency, for an RPM of 2.38 up until then. His post-June 2012 RPM is 3.2, and for this year so far it's 3.14 (he was at 158 rounds on New Year's Day). How does an RPM of 2.69 compare to other presidents?
William Howard Taft, 1909-1913: Taft was the first president to make it known he enjoyed golf, and was an avid player both during and after his presidency. Sources claim that while he had a 20 handicap, he was able to shoot under 90. Taft was also routinely jibed in the press for his habit, and vowed to play fewer rounds later in his term. He did not. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown, probably high.
Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921: Wilson took White House golf to the next level, and is thought to have played about 1,000 rounds while in office. But presidential golf historian Don Van Natta claims the number is much higher, anywhere between 1,200 and 1,600. Wilson loved golf so much that legend has it he hit black golf balls outside during the winter. It's also generally accepted that Wilson wasn't very good at the sport. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Between 10.4 and 16.7.
Warren G. Harding, 1921-1923: Another president described as an avid golfer, Harding was the first POTUS to have a golf course named after him. It was during a round of golf that Harding first displayed signs of the heart failure thought to have killed him. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown.
Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929: Unathletic and clumsy, Coolidge played golf, but only out of obligation. Legend has it that his clubs remained in the White House after he left office. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown, probably low.
Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933: Hoover is one of the few presidents not to have had any interest in golf. Though he did put his name on another sport, a Depression-era artifact that involved teams heaving a giant medicine ball over a net. This grueling hybrid of volleyball and tennis was called, of course, Hoover-ball and the president and his cabinet were quite fond of it. Golfer: No. HGPM (Hoover-ball Games Per Month): Unknown, probably high.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945: Before polio robbed him of his mobility in his late 30's, FDR was a regular golfer, well-known for his ability to hit long drives. He never was able to play as president. Golfer: Yes. RPM: 0.
Harry Truman, 1945-1953: Hampered by poor eyesight, lack of athletic ability and utter disinterest, Truman was not a golfer. Golfer: No. RPM: 0.
Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961: After spearheading the liberation of Europe, Eisenhower had earned a little time on the links. And he was an incredibly active golfer, playing between 800 and 900 rounds, including some on the lawn outside the White House. Ike took his golf seriously - too seriously, according to his critics. This visibility made golf the game of choice for the 50's businessman. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Between 8.3 and 9.4.
John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963: The athletic Kennedy was an outstanding player with what was described as a "beautiful shot." But he kept his golf habit quiet during the 1960 election, due to the backlash against Eisenhower's reputation as "The Great Golfer." He also injured his back early in his first year, and didn't play from May 1961 until July 1963. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown, probably low.
Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969: While most presidents kept politics out of their golf games, Johnson used golf as a means to an end, including to secure votes for the Civil Rights Act. He also was renowned for refusing to divulge his scores, requesting do-overs and taking hundreds of swings just to hit one perfect shot. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown.
Richard Nixon, 1969-1973: Nixon didn't take up golf until he was Vice President, allegedly as a way to curry favor with President Eisenhower. But he studied the game hard and practiced often. He was also known to cheat occasionally, and might have once used a game to discuss aliens with Jackie Gleason. He played less as the stress of Watergate and Vietnam piled up, but took the game up again after resigning. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown.
Gerald Ford, 1973-1977. Despite the enduring image of Chevy Chase falling down a flight of stairs, Ford was a graceful athlete and good golfer, though he had a reputation for hitting bystanders with balls at tournaments. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Unknown.
Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981: Preferring sports like auto racing and softball, Carter never played golf as president. Golfer: No. RPM: 0.
Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989: The Gipper didn't play golf often (possibly only a dozen times), but when he did, he tended to play well. The most infamous story related to Reagan and golf involves not the game itself, but a hostage situation that broke out while he was playing at Augusta. Golfer: Yes. RPM: Around .13.
George HW Bush, 1989-1993: An inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Bush 41 was known for his low handicap and fast games. After leaving office, he played in numerous tournaments and became friends with many well-known professional golfers. Golfer: yes. RPM: Unknown.
Bill Clinton, 1993-2001: Clinton was probably the most prolific golfer in the White House since Eisenhower. He enjoyed the sport and was renowned for a strong game — and for benefiting from his status to cajole do-overs and mulligans from his course-mates. When Don Van Natta asked Clinton if he played 400 rounds while in office, Clinton replied "sounds about right." Golfer: Yes. RPM: Around 4.2.
George W. Bush, 2001-2009: Bush 43 played frequently before becoming president, often with his father. But he had golfed only 24 rounds when he publicly gave up the game, 34 months into his presidency, as a gesture of support for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Golfer: Yes. RPM: .71 before giving up game, .25 overall.
So what does this dive into math and history tell us?
1. The president is expected to project an image of physical health and love of activity, making golf and the presidency are intertwined. Including Barack Obama, 14 out of 17 presidents, or 82%, played golf during their time in the White House (I took FDR out of the mix due to his physical limitations.)
2. Enjoyment of the game is shared between both parties, taking place during both peacetime and war, good economic times and bad. Of the two most staunch golfers, Wilson and Eisenhower, one was a Democrat and the other a Republican.
3. When we have data available for how many rounds they played, Obama's golf habit is in the middle of the presidential spectrum, higher than Reagan and Bush 43, but lower than Wilson, Eisenhower and Clinton. If we had data available for the other presidents, it would probably remain right in the middle.
4. Other presidents have also been criticized for playing "too much" golf, for keeping their games closed to the public and for their conduct on the golf course.
Whether you agree or disagree with these criticisms is entirely up to you. But the math is clear: many presidents before Obama played golf, with some playing much more and some playing much less. As a hobby goes, this one is about as typical as you can get.
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