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The tee test for Presidents

Washington, May 8: A history of the American presidency has uncovered a startling truth for occupants of the White House. You can lie and get away with it. You can harbour secret vices. But once you step on the golf course, your true character is laid bare.

Fourteen of the last 17 US Presidents have been golfers, and their conduct on the links is a metaphor for their place in history, the book argues.

Many presidents have abused the perks of office, bending the rules and taking “mulligans”, author Don Van Natta Jr discovered.

Few were as blatant as Richard Nixon, a joyless player whose swing “looked as if he was trying to beat the dust out of a floor rug”.

Playing the leading tournament player Sam Snead, Nixon sent a shot into a dense thicket. Snead waited for the President to take his loss, drop a new ball and play on. Instead, he saw a ball arc high out of the woods on to the fairway, followed by the President “looking real pleased with himself”, Snead recalled. “I knew he threw it out, but I didn’t say anything.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the master manipulator, played golf like he played politics, says Van Natta in First Off The Tee. Johnson would simply ignore his bad shots, fish a new ball out of his pocket and hit it. “No permission was sought, ever.” He routinely took 300 swings per round.

Worst of all was Bill Clinton. Van Natta once wrote a searing New York Times exposé of Clinton’s claim to have shot a round in 78, a personal best. It noted the president’s endless mulligans and “gimmes” — his habit of asking opponents to give him putts from as far as 50 feet away.

When Van Natta asked to play golf with Clinton last year he was surprised that the ex-President accepted. “He was on his best behaviour for about a hole-and-a-half,” Van Natta said. “After that it was his usual game of three shots off the tee.

“He would get out to the fairway, there’d be three balls there, and he’d ask, ‘Now, which of these was my first one'’”

More often than not, the other players replied: “No, Mr President, it’s this ball closest to the flag.” Clinton, chewing on an unlit cigar, then happily played that “first” ball.

“I estimate that he took 200 swings during our 18-hole round, but he had an 82 on his score," said Van Natta.

The best was John F. Kennedy, who had a “perfect, almost effortless swing”. JFK would sneak out of the White House for secret rounds to avoid photographers, not least because he had denounced his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, for playing too much.

Gerald Ford became the butt of jokes. He hit at least half-a-dozen onlookers during his golfing career.

President George W. Bush and his father play together, though the elder now has to play off the ladies’ tees. “I am getting a little tired of my sons saying, ‘Don’t trip on your skirt when you hit the next one, Betsy’,” Bush senior told Van Natta.

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