First off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush

First off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush

by Don Van Natta Jr.

Golf is the favorite sport of America's presidents, and an award-winning New York Times reporter tells great stories that show why it's so much more than a game for them.

Some students of the presidency say that we can learn the most about the men who've occupied the Oval Office by studying their ideology. Others say political savvy or family background or

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Golf is the favorite sport of America's presidents, and an award-winning New York Times reporter tells great stories that show why it's so much more than a game for them.

Some students of the presidency say that we can learn the most about the men who've occupied the Oval Office by studying their ideology. Others say political savvy or family background or regional influences are paramount. But Don Van Natta argues for another standard—by observing the way they play golf.

Fourteen of the last seventeen presidents have been golfers, and Van Natta explores two questions: Why is the game of golf so attractive to the men who occupy the Oval Office? And what do their golf games reveal about their characters? Some presidents relied on golf to escape the burdens of office, while others brought those burdens with them. And few have been able to resist the perks of high office, bending the rules and freely taking mulligans. Is it really surprising to learn that the section called "Hail to the Cheats" features the golfing escapades of Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Warren Harding?

Not content to rely solely on the history books, Van Natta takes the reader on a round of golf he recently played with Bill Clinton and draws on extensive interviews with the golfing ex-presidents about what the game means to them. For history buffs and golf aficionados alike, First Off the Tee is a cheerful romp and a unique way to share the links with America's duffers-in-chief.

Author Biography: Don Van Natta, Jr., is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He was a reporter for The Miami Herald before joining the Times in 1995, and he has been a member of two Times reporting teams that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He is also a 100-plus golfer who once shot an ugly hole-in-one. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Editorial Reviews

Deseret News
Thoroughly charming.
Wall Street Journal
Interesting stuff about our golfing presidents... we're indebted to Mr. Van Natta for giving us a first-hand account of [Clinton's game].
The Hill
Van Natta cleverly organizes the book and weaves the use golf as a window into each president's personality.
The New York Times
The enduring allure of golf, and the reason thousands of powerful businessmen and politicians are drawn to it, has less to do with athletic prowess than with the demands it makes on your mind. In golf, after all, it's not a matter of how well you play but how you handle how you play. What we learn here about our presidents is that they're flawed, vain and at times eager to escape their responsibilities. In short, they're human beings. The White House press might find this newsworthy, but those who caddied for our chief executives knew it all along. — Bradley S. Klein
The New Yorker
"Just remember the three ups," a seasoned caddy tells the sportswriter Rick Reilly, before Reilly makes his caddying début at the Masters. "Show up, keep up, and shut up." In Who's Your Caddy?, he carries the bag for the likes of David Duval and Casey Martin and listens in on the conversations taking place on those hushed sunlit greens. Reilly quickly becomes attuned to the demands of pros, who can be "just slightly more finicky than the Sultan of Brunei." Still, as he learns how to avoid rattling the clubs or knocking over Jack Nicklaus's bag, he gets plenty of experience approaching not only the greens but the golfers, both the famous and the famously avid. Reilly chats with Donald Trump about building seven-million-dollar waterfalls and asks Deepak Chopra, "Is cheating in golf wrong?"

Don Van Natta, Jr., takes up that same question in a round with Bill Clinton, in First Off the Tee, a look at America's various golf-playing Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt steered politicians away from the sport's apparent élitism, warning, "Golf is fatal." Likewise, John F. Kennedy, probably the best of the Presidential duffers, didn't want voters to know he was any good; unlike his predecessor, the golfophilic Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy vigorously avoided being photographed on the links.

Today, golf has shed some of that high-class sheen; Alan Shipnuck's Bud, Sweat & Tees chronicles run-ins with strippers and gamblers as it follows the ascent of 2002 P.G.A. Championship winner Rich Beem on the pro tour. Beem's philosophy is similarly rebellious: "Pedal to the metal, fire at every flag. It's go low or go home. (Lauren Porcaro)
Publishers Weekly
Presidents who cheat at golf? What's next? A Washington correspondent for the New York Times, Van Natta has the inside scoop on presidential golfers both then and now: who has game, who doesn't and who should lay down his clubs in deference to those who appreciate fair play. From the best (John Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt) to the worst (Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan), to the cheaters (Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson), Van Natta shares insights about our nation's leaders and their passion for the game. Lyndon Johnson used golf to intimidate political opponents. Woodrow Wilson played every day, often during political crises. JFK feared the implications of public knowledge of his prowess. The public had not appreciated Eisenhnower's obsession, since golf was still seen as a "rich man's game," and not an appropriate activity for the "champion of the people." Van Natta's research is impressive and his writing style is engaging, but the text feels a bit like a one-trick pony. Filled with anecdotal bits and pieces, there is more of interest here to historians than to serious golfers. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This book by Van Natta, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, has an unusual concept. It is not really a sports book; nor is it a work of political analysis. Instead, it functions best as a work of presidential biography; we see the styles of 14 presidents through the narrow but instructive prism of their golfing behavior. Hence, John Kennedy's secretive approach to his love of golf is highly reminiscent of other secret pleasures he enjoyed. Bill Clinton's profligate propensity for "mulligans" (do-overs), "gimme" putts, and adjusted lies personify his overall presidential attitude. Richard Nixon's clumsy and corrupt political style was reflected in his extremely awkward and duplicitous golf game. Which President played the best 18 holes? According to the author, it was JFK. This is a niche item but is very well done. [Excerpted in Sports Illustrated.-Ed.]-John Maxymuk, Robeson Lib., Rutgers Univ., Camden, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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First Off the Tee

Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush
By Van Natta, Don, Jr.

Perseus Books Group

Copyright © 2004 Van Natta, Don, Jr.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1586482653


Even as golf surged in popularity through the latter half of the twentieth century, the presidents recognized potential political peril on the golf course, and it was not necessarily lurking in the bunkers or the rough. Sometimes, the potential political costs were envisioned as the ball soared straight at the pin.

John F. Kennedy was one who cringed at his own beautiful shot. Despite a bad back, Kennedy possessed a graceful, effortless swing, which allowed him to easily rank as the best player among the fourteen Presidential golfers. But he was obsessively secretive about his love of the game, just as he was obsessively secretive about the other extracurricular activities that he participated in during his 1,000 days in the White House. And some members of the press, many of whom adored Kennedy, enabled the president to keep his passion for women-and, to a lesser extent, golf-hidden from the public.

As he ran for President in 1960, Kennedy was acutely aware that some Americans had become disenchanted with President Dwight D. Eisenhower's methodical devotion to golf. Kennedy was almost maniacal about his refusal to allow photographers to snap his picture while holding a driver or a putter.

Just a few days before the Democratic convention in which he would accept the party's nomination for President, Kennedy teed off on the par 3, 15th oceanfront hole at the breathtaking Cypress Point Course on California's Monterey peninsula. Kennedy's ball landed on the green and rolled straight toward the hole. It looked almost certain that the ball would glide into the cup.

"I was yelling, 'Go in! Go in!' " recalled Paul B. Fay, Jr., who later served as the undersecretary of the Navy in the Kennedy administration. But Jack Kennedy looked stricken with terror. The ball stopped just six inches short of the hole.

Kennedy exhaled, and told Fay: "You're yelling for that damn ball to go in the hole and I'm watching a promising political career coming to an end. If that ball had gone into that hole, in less than an hour the word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get into the White House."


Excerpted from First Off the Tee by Van Natta, Don, Jr. Copyright © 2004 by Van Natta, Don, Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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