Golf Expert Chips In Analyzing Presidential Golf Swings

From William Howard Taft to Donald Trump, Bob Smiley takes a swing at the Golfers in Chief.

May 16, 2017 5:00 am

President Donald Trump’s golf trips get a lot of scrutiny in the press nowadays, but a large part of American history has been spent on the links.

Ulysses S. Grant was the first U.S. President to publicly play golf, albeit not particularly well.

While on a trip to Great Britain, it was reported that Grant was invited to the links, where he took several wild swings at the ball, missing badly. Grant summed up the experience by musing: “I have always understood the game of golf was good outdoor exercise and especially for the arms. I fail, however, to see what use there is for a ball in the game.”

Following his election to the Senate in 1952, John F. Kennedy visited in Bermuda where he displayed a keen interest in golf, playing on the Riddell's Bay Golf & Country Club course with his then host, Mr. Oliver Brooks (right). | Location: Bermuda.
Following his election to the Senate in 1952, John F. Kennedy shows off his golf swing in Bermuda. (Getty Images)
Bettmann Archive

Since then, many other White House residents have picked up a club and even occasionally managed to make contact. We’ve broken down five iconic presidential swings with the help of Bob Smiley. The acclaimed golf writer knows a good swing, having tagged along with Tiger Woods for all 604 holes of Tiger’s 2008 season for the book, Follow the Roar(Among the things making 2008 memorable for Tiger: it was the last time he won a major with a legendary playoff victory over Rocco Mediate while playing on a wrecked leg.)

Find out how First Golfers compare to the standard set by Mr. Woods.

William Howard Taft. Taft was not a healthy man, weighing an estimated 340 pounds while in the White House. He would have been worse off without golf. First playing at 39, Taft became a devotee, even blowing off the President of Chile to keep a tee time. Analyzing archival footage, Smiley reports Taft’s swing got off to a good start, calling his setup “not bad—solid base, good spine angle over the ball.” Unfortunately, it fell apart from there, since Taft’s “swing itself is all arms (both his feet barely move the whole swing).” That’s particularly disappointing because it denied him a chance to transform a seeming physical defect into a strength, since Taft utterly failed to “take advantage of his enormous weight to generate any real clubhead speed.”


John F. Kennedy. Only 43 when he took office, JFK brought a new level of athleticism to presidential golf. Ironically, Kennedy tried to hide how skilled he was and how often he played, believing he needed to show he would be a different sort of leader than his predecessor, Ike. (JFK was horrified when, while casually golfing in 1960, he nearly hit a hole-in-one.) It’s believed Kennedy’s average score would have been about an 80. Smiley finds a solid player with “good balance, athletic swing, fluid motion.” There are, however, holes that Kennedy could have worked on: “He should (have taken) a slightly wider stance to generate more power with his lower body” and “the club appears too far forward for what looks like a 9 iron, which means he would lose some distance and (have) hit it higher than he’d (have liked.)” The most impressive part of the Kennedy swing is how unaffected it was by his chronic back pain: “I think most guys wish they were that limber.”


Richard Nixon. Nixon began playing golf while serving as Vice President under Eisenhower, likely recognizing this was a good way to get to spend time with the President. Bizarrely, once he became President himself, Nixon once summoned the legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, but instead of golfing asked if the King had thoughts on U.S. policy in Vietnam. Then again, playing with Palmer might have been demoralizing because in Nixon, Smiley finds a man with a whole lot of flaws in his game. There’s the way he “whipped the club inside which is bad,” though Smiley gives points for an ability to “keep it close to on plane.” There are, however, other defects on display in archival video: “In addition to having little lower body turn like Taft, he also manages to have little upper body turn—and the club never even approaches parallel. Also, his weight never gets off his right side.” Smiley says this adds up to a swing that wouldn’t generate much power: “I’m guessing he didn’t hit it very far.” Assuming that it is a swing. (“I would call this more of a slash than a swing.”) Unsurprisingly, Nixon eventually gave up golf entirely and supposedly called it a “game for lazy bastards.”


Barack Obama. Now we reach a former president who can still take advantage of Smiley’s critiques. Still only 55, even after eight years in the White House, what should Obama work on when he heads to the course? Smiley notes his setup is “not bad”—indeed, he says it “looks hopeful at this stage.” (This is a significant improvement after the Nixon slash.) Smiley observes “his backswing is close, too.” There’s still plenty to address in retirement, since “the bowed wrist at the top means Obama has to manipulate the clubhead at impact with his hands and body to have any hope of hitting it straight.” The result? “His spine angle gets messed up and he likely is inconsistent.”


Donald Trump. The Donald owes a decent chunk of his net worth to golf, but the sport isn’t just about money to him. Quite simply, it is a passion. At 70, by his own account Trump has been golfing for decades. How’s so much time on the greens affected that swing? “Like Nixon, Trump takes it too far inside and has to do a bunch of things to get it in the right spot on the way down,” Smiley reports. Then there’s an unexpected twist, for “unlike Nixon, Trump amazingly does just that, making a fairly full backswing then getting the club on plane and dropping it into the slot.” All works out surprisingly well, as Trump “turns through the ball with power and likely can hit it pretty far when he needs to.”


Of these presidents, which is the most reminiscent of Tiger? Smiley says Trump, since he “hits the hardest and farthest so by that measurement he’s the closest.” And on the other extreme? “By the same measurement I’d say Taft is the least Tiger-like.” That may change, however: “The way Tiger’s back is hurting him, Tiger might slowly be morphing into Taft.”


The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.