Quietly, the President Finds That Golf Is No Slam Dunk

On November 25, 2009, in Articles, Basketball, Golf, Videos, by Baller-in-Chief

A Star on the Court, He’s Called a Hacker On the Course; Fans Miss the ‘Original Guy’

(From Elizabeth Williamson for The Wall Street Journal Online)

A Star on the Court, He’s Called a Hacker On the Course; Fans Miss the ‘Original Guy’

One day last summer, Gene Mulak, observing carnage in the sand trap, decided it was time to rescue the Leader of the Free World.

“Open the clubface more!” the golf pro yelled to President Barack Obama. A rank of bodyguards stiffened when they heard the shouting, but the commander-in-chief continued to hack away, sand flying, recalls Mr. Mulak, a resident professional at the Vineyard Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Mr. Obama waved off the guards and welcomed Mr. Mulak into the pit. The pro says he gave the president tips on his golf stance and his swing, both of which were conspiring against him. “He would have had trouble getting out of any bunker in the country,” concludes Mr. Mulak.

Which all serves to deepen a mystery that has surrounded the presidency: Why has Barack Obama forsaken basketball for the links?

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama played a mean, frequent and public game of hoops. He played outdoors and in, with pols, pros, troops in Kuwait and university kids half his age. “For people our age, it was like watching Clinton on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show,’ playing the saxophone,” says Alex Podlogar, a 34-year-old sportswriter at the Sanford Herald in Sanford, N.C.

But as president, Mr. Obama has neglected the court. He has played only seven known games of basketball since taking office, compared with 25 rounds of golf, a sport he picked up about a decade ago when he was an Illinois state senator. That’s more golf than former President George W. Bush played in two terms, according to CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who tracks presidential trivia. (In 2003, Mr. Bush quit golf, saying he did so out of respect for the troops serving in Iraq. Since leaving office, he has returned to the sport, an aide says.)

And where Mr. Obama’s basketball game is showy and often televised, his golf is furtive and off-the-record. He plays with junior aides and discreet longtime friends. There’s no press allowed onto the course with him, no cameras — and few witnesses. A foursome of loyal staffers often plays out ahead of him, clearing the way and trying to ensure no one spies.

Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton

Fans say President Barack Obama has forsaken his stellar basketball game for a mediocre golf game, a sign that he’s gotten ‘soft.’

The frequency and secrecy of the president’s golfing has infuriated some of his basketball fans. This love of the links can’t be for keeps, they moan, for he who plays secretly must surely play badly.

How badly? His score is a matter of “national security,” deflects David Axelrod, political adviser to the First Duffer. White House aides said playing golf gets the president outdoors more, but declined to comment further on why he appears to be favoring golf over hoops, or why members of the press haven’t been allowed to watch him tee off.

Postings by golf observers on the Web site Baller-in-Chief, which is primarily devoted to the president’s basketball game, posit a brutal answer: Mr. Obama has a golf handicap in the mid-20s, considered weak to average, and a cramped swing that’s not so pretty.

A recent anonymous posting on Golf.com comes from a golfer who claims to have caught some of the action: “I had the misfortune of being stuck in a group on the same course as the Prez and his buddies and watching them play one hole in the time it took our foursome to play 3 was painful. The only thing stopping us from telling them to pick it up was the incredibly large security detail he had with him.”

Some people dissing the president’s golf game have an agenda: They want him back on the basketball court.

“The fact that he isn’t playing [basketball]…is a metaphor for those people who think he’s gotten soft, backed off of his promises, sold out,” says Claude Johnson, Baller-in-Chief’s founder and owner of Black Fives Inc., a basketball merchandising firm in Greenwich, Conn. “When President Obama goes back to basketball, that will be a sign that we haven’t lost the original guy.”

Fifteen of the past 18 presidents have played golf, according to “First Off the Tee,” a history of presidential golf by Don Van Natta Jr. Dwight D. Eisenhower did so with military routine. John F. Kennedy was a graceful player known for lucky breaks. Bill Clinton fudged his score so often that some golfers call a mulligan — a penalty-free do-over for amateurs — a “Clinton” or “Billigan.”

Mr. Obama’s aides say the president, known for his discipline, doesn’t take mulligans and adheres to every rule on the course. When in Washington, Mr. Obama most often plays on one of two military courses, Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. At Andrews, the press is safely quarantined in a nearby food court.

The president isn’t all fun and games when he’s on the course. Before teeing off at the Vineyard Golf Club, for example, the noted orator couldn’t resist offering a snap address to 400 people penned in on the deck of the club house. Mr. Mulak, the golf pro, says Mr. Obama hits in one direction. “Barack generally hits his ball to the left,” he says.

Matt Lombard, a staffer in the pro shop at Mink Meadows Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, hoped to catch the president’s game during the Obama family vacation on the island in August. He says he was bringing golf balls down to the driving range when the Secret Service stopped him, dumped the bucket and tapped each ball with a small hammer.

Mr. Lombard was shut into the pro shop with a couple dozen other people, who saw the president tee off with a swing Mr. Lombard describes as: “Eh, not so much.” The group strained to see a presidential putt. “He took it as a gimme,” says Mr. Lombard, referring to the tradition of automatically counting the next stroke as in the hole if the ball is close enough. His conclusion: Mr. Obama “ought to play a little more basketball.”

[Golf Ball]

Presidential golf ball

A day later, the president rushed through a bicycle ride with his family, then headed back to the Vineyard Golf Club, the island’s most challenging course. As Mr. Obama hacked through the grass, some 30 members of the White House press corps sat out of sight on a bus for five hours.

Mr. Mulak says he never learned Mr. Obama’s score that day, but figures he surely broke 100, an average score for a hacker on a tough course. “Solid shots — I wouldn’t say straight lasers at the pin,” he says.

Back in Washington, there are signs that the president’s basketball jones is returning.

A tennis court behind the White House has been restyled into a basketball court. Last month, Mr. Obama gave it a road test, inviting over some congressmen and cabinet members for a game.

It’s about time, says Mr. Podlogar, the North Carolina sportswriter. “Let me put it in language you might be better able to understand, Mr. President,” he wrote recently in his newspaper: “Basketball? Yes, you can. Golf? No, you can’t.”

WSJ’s Elizabeth Williamson discusses how fans of President Obama’s basketball game are lobbying to get him back on the court and off the golf course.

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