Barack Obama: Duffer in Chief | NBC New York

Barack Obama: Duffer in Chief

President's skills on the links need help



    AFP/Getty Images
    President Obama's unorthodox way of lining up putts could be a source of his bad golf game.

    When it comes to the sport of presidents, Barack Obama is very much the everyman.

    He tries, as if willing himself to believe: Yes I can. But Obama's skills on the basketball court are not matched on the links -- at least not yet.

    "It's a game that I keep on thinking I should be good at," Obama told a Russian interviewer before leaving on his most recent foreign trip, "and somehow the ball goes this way and that way and never goes straight."

    It was a statement as old as the sport itself. A nation of hackers no doubt nodded in agreement, feeling the president's pain.

    He's had a round cut short by a thunderstorm. His motorcade got stuck in freeway traffic on the way to another outing.

    Demonstrating his game before the cameras while in Hawaii as president-elect, he took a left-handed, shield-your-eyes swing that left a divot not quite the size of Oahu.

    Yet the frustrations haven't kept him from doggedly pursuing what has seemingly become the obligatory pastime of presidents. Even though he's a relative latecomer to the sport and is known to prefer basketball, Obama has become a regular weekend golfer, playing at least 10 times since April 26.

    He was on the course Sunday, getting some jet-lag-beating exercise a half-day after returning from a six-day trip to Moscow, Italy and Ghana. He also sneaked in a round June 7 -- the same day he returned from another trip to Africa and Europe, while wife Michelle and their daughters remained in Paris. He's played on Memorial Day, Father's Day (with Vice President Joe Biden) and the Fourth of July.

    "I've played with him twice now," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told The Associated Press. "And he is very fun-loving -- and competitive, but in a fun-loving way. Also, very supportive in urging everybody to try to play their best, telling them to slow down and relax. Sometimes you can get a little bit nervous playing with the president."

    Nervous? The commerce secretary?

    "If you hit a bad shot, you don't want to hold up the group and everything," Locke explained. "Sometimes I'm running off to get my ball and he's says, 'Na, na, na, just take your time and relax and do your best.' He's very good at putting people at ease."

    Fifteen of the last 18 presidents have been golfers, and many have wrestled with the image of their play when the cameras are rolling. While the public gets to see its commander in chief portrayed as staying fit, relaxing and enjoying the outdoors, golf also suffers from a reputation of being a sport for the elite. President John Kennedy kept photographers away from his golf excursions for that very reason, according to Don Van Natta's comprehensive 2003 book "First off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush."

    Then there's the notion held by some that the president should not be seen doing anything trivial in a time full of troubles. It's not hard to find postings on social networking sites taking potshots at his Obama's outings.

    Yet, for the new president, golf is less about image and more about finding a cure for the self-proclaimed stir-craziness he feels inside the protective bubble of the presidency. Random walks with Michelle and pickup basketball games at the local YMCA are a no-go with the Secret Service, leaving golf as the best outlet for stretching the legs in casual clothing and breathing fresh, non-cocooned air -- even if the courses are on restricted military installations, usually Fort Belvoir or Andrews Air Force Base, in the Washington area.

    "It is the only time that for six hours, first of all, that I'm outside," Obama told CBS News' Harry Smith last month on "The Early Show." "And, second of all, where you almost feel normal in the sense that you're not in a bubble. There are a whole bunch of Secret Service guys, but they're sort of in the woods. And when you're up there in the tee box, and you're hacking away and hitting some terrible shot and your friends are laughing at you, it feels as if, you know, you're out of the container."

    To date, Obama's playing partners have mostly been friends and Washington insiders. One foursome included Locke, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and presidential trip planner Marvin Nicholson, who once caddied at the Augusta National, home of the Masters tournament. In a later outing, presidential aide Eugene Kang played with Locke, Nicholson and Obama.

    Despite such power groupings, Locke said Obama doesn't use the golf course as a second office.

    "We try not to talk shop," Locke said. "It's really very pleasant and easygoing. He's talking about family, just how people are doing. We're talking about the game itself and trying to help each other."

    Locke said the foursomes play as teams. Nicholson, in fact, has become Obama's personal ringer of sorts, outdriving the field with a 7-iron when everyone else is using a wood. The pairing of Obama-Nicholson routed Locke-Kirk, but Obama-Nicholson vs. Locke-Kang ended it a tie because Kang is a top-notch golfer himself.

    More star power could be on the way. Tiger Woods visited the White House in April, and the world's No. 1 golfer is itching to playing a round with the duffer in chief.

    "His schedule and my schedule are a little bit busy," Woods said last weekend at the AT&T National in suburban Washington. "His is really busy. He's got a lot on his plate. We'll get it done sometime down the road. I don't know when, but we will definitely do it."