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Golfer in Chief

The best thing about Obama is the time he spends on the links.

“Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.” The quip comes from paleoconservative sage Russell Kirk, when asked about John Birch Society chief Robert Welch’s charge that President Eisenhower was a Communist agent. Ike wasn’t the only Red in Welch’s sights. “I personally believe [Secretary of State] Dulles to be a communist agent,” he wrote, and CIA chief Allen Dulles “is the most protected and untouchable supporter of Communism, next to Eisenhower himself, in Washington.” Further, “The chances are very strong that Milton Eisenhower is actually Dwight Eisenhower’s superior and boss within the Communist Party.”

What chance has Barack Hussein Obama to be judged by more sober standards? Granted, Welch in his heyday was considered a kook, while Obama is viewed as secretly disloyal by meatier segments of the Right. Rush Limbaugh, probably the most influential voice of the conservative movement, recently told listeners that Obama is governing with “the express purpose of overthrowing this country.” Rush believes (or at least says) that Obama is not driven by communist doctrine but a Third World desire for payback for America’s historical crimes. The president has been on this mission, Rush asserts, “far longer than you think.”

Most modern-day conservatives do not disassociate themselves from Limbaugh the way Bill Buckley and Kirk distanced themselves from Welch and the Birchers. The comment boards on big conservative websites are full of Obama-the-totalitarian, Obama-the-closet-Islamist rhetoric. A few conservatives find this rhetoric distasteful and self-defeating, not to mention remote from observable facts. But the best retort to the reckless charges may be the same as Kirk’s: No, Obama’s not carrying out a long-term plan to overthrow the United States. He’s a golfer.

Unpacking Kirk’s remark requires some sense of the game and its impact on the personality. Obama has clearly become hooked. It was reported that he had played 32 times prior to the funeral of the Polish prime minister, when, seizing the opportunity provided by the volcano air-travel shutdown, he teed it up. This is a pace of about 24 rounds a year, well short of Eisenhower’s hundred. Unlike Ike, Obama doesn’t walk around the residence with a pitching wedge in hand or practice eight irons on the White House grounds. But he plays golf with the frequency of a man committed to the game.

By most accounts, Obama is still a mediocre player. Reports have him shooting in the 90s and low hundreds. He has poor technique in greenside bunkers, a sure recipe for fattening a score, but he plays seriously, recording real scores without mulligans.

Obama was a varsity basketball player in high school who still looks athletic on the court, and he has a fluid-looking golf swing. I’m sure he hits plenty of fine shots, the kind that tell him, “If I could only play and practice a bit more, I could get pretty good.” Most people who were strong high school athletes can. One of golf’s wonders is that a reasonably fit adult can continue to improve throughout his 50s. Last year Tom Watson nearly won the British Open at age 59, beating a field of men half his age. That was exceptional, but in any other sport it would be out of the question.

Let’s dispense with platitudes about golf being a great way to relax, to put aside the cares of the office, to bond with friends, to commune with nature. All are true, but the same could be said of fishing or hiking. Those pastimes don’t become obsessive. Golf does.

For the avid golfer, few pleasures rival hitting a good shot. Sex, sometimes. Exquisite food, maybe. Doing something very well in your profession, certainly. But striking a good golf shot pushes a lot of psychic satisfaction buttons. It requires both physical grace and mental control. The margin between hitting well and hitting poorly is small. A good shot rewards, however fleetingly, with a sense of mastery.

Some writers describe this in mystical terms. Here’s John Updike in Rabbit, Run. His protagonist, 20-something former high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, is playing golf with Eccles, an Episcopal priest. Rabbit has a busted marriage and is having trouble with adulthood. There is something, some “it,” that was missing from his marriage and remains absent from his life. Perhaps it’s God or the sense of wholeness and peace that some people seek in church. Eccles isn’t convinced and indeed questions whether there is any “it” at all. He asks Rabbit to describe what he’s looking for:

In avoiding looking at Eccles, he looks at the ball, which sits high on a tee and already seems free of the ground. Very simply he brings the clubhead around his shoulder into it. The sound has a hollowness, a singleness he hasn’t heard before. His arms force his head up and his ball is hung way out, lunarly pale against the beautiful black blue of storm clouds, his grandfather’s color stretched dense across the north. It recedes along a line straight as a ruler-edge. Stricken; sphere, star, speck. It hesitates, and Rabbit thinks it will die, but he’s fooled, for the ball makes its hesitation the ground of a final leap: with a kind of visible sob it takes a last bite of space, before vanishing in falling.

‘That’s it,’ he cries, turning to Eccles with a grin of aggrandizement. ‘That’s it.’

The satisfaction doesn’t last, and even avid players lose interest in the game. But those who are getting better tend to stay committed. Obama, who started playing in his late thirties, is still on the upward stage of his golf trajectory, the most rewarding stage, and the one most likely to border on compulsion.

Some on the Left have already complained that golf is damaging his presidency. The New Republic’s Michelle Cottle laments that the spirit of “change you can believe in” is being dissipated on the golf course. She is on to something. A disciplined person can compartmentalize, shove the golf thoughts into a corner and let them out only for their allotted ten or 15 hours of the week. But their presence makes a difference. Golf crowds out other, potentially competing, obsessions. A golfing president can put in the focused hours his job requires, but grandiose dreams about what his office can accomplish are likely to be restrained. Golf teaches the recognition of limits. Don’t swing too hard. Power is found in balance, in tempo, in not overreaching. No golfer is a revolutionary.

Does the president’s mind wander to the pure six iron he hit in his last round while he is working on talking points that recommend Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court? I would bet it does. Does Obama think more about his next round and how to play better infinitely more than he does about overthrowing the American system? Without a shadow of a doubt. Does golf limit his motivation even to transform the country, with the bitter, all-consuming fights this would require? Quite possibly that, too.

Editor at large Scott McConnell has an 8.4 handicap and shot three rounds in the 70s last year.

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