Most U.S. presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries played golf, either for personal recreation or as a vehicle to help them achieve their political ends. While several presidents were solid athletes, the scholarly Woodrow Wilson likely played golf more often than any American chief executive. But he reportedly played for health reasons, on the advice of his doctor. For pure love of the game, Dwight D. Eisenhower ranks first among the presidents as of 2012.
Dwight Eisenhower was an excellent youth football and baseball player who eventually played football while attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His football career, however, was cut short by knee injuries that prevented him from running. He took up golf at age 37, teaching himself a swing that didn’t involve twisting his bad knee. He eventually shot in the low 80s consistently, according to the Eisenhower Memorial website. As president he played two rounds per week and -- using donated funds -- had a putting green installed on the White House lawn.
Eisenhower became a member of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, before serving as president. He made 29 visits to Augusta during his two terms in office, and the club built a small cottage where Eisenhower stayed during his weekend visits. Longtime club chairman Clifford Roberts, a friend of Eisenhower, reported that Eisenhower broke 80 four times on the course. Roberts also stated that Eisenhower was the most enthusiastic golfer he’d ever met.
The “First Golfer”
Before Eisenhower took office, golf was considered a rich man’s sport by many Americans. Eisenhower, who was far from rich, helped change the game’s image. As of 2012, Eisenhower is the only president to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, which reports that the American golfing population doubled to 6.4 million during Eisenhower’s eight years in the White House.
Top 15 Golfing Presidents
Some observers, particularly Democrats, criticized the amount of golf that the Republican Eisenhower played while president. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was among the critics, yet Kennedy also enjoyed the game and may have been the most talented golfer of any U.S. president. A 2009 “Golf Digest” article ranked the top 15 golfing presidents and placed Kennedy on top, noting that he averaged 80 despite back pain from his World War II injuries. Eisenhower was second on the list, followed by former University of Michigan football standout Gerald Ford. Franklin D. Roosevelt was ranked fourth, based on his play prior to contracting polio. Wilson played often but not well, coming in at No. 12. He famously described golf as "a game in which one endeavors to control a ball with implements ill-adapted for the purpose." The only non-golfing presidents since 1909 were Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter, according to “Golf Digest.”