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JFK: The secret golfer

The president was a talented golfer but had to play it down

Posted Dec 04, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


Depending on his White House schedule, we’re told that President John F Kennedy had planned a golf date with Arnold Palmer around this time, 50 years ago.  That, of course, was before Dallas intervened with horrendous consequences.

We all have favourite stories about JFK, and mine, not unnaturally, are concerned with his golf, which is reputed to have been of the highest standard of any US president.  And I can recall a story from April 1996 when one of his sets of golf clubs comprising Ben Hogan Power Thrust irons and MacGregor woods, was auctioned by Sotherby’s, New York, as part of the estate of the late Jackie Onassis.

Indeed interest in JFK’s golfing skills was further heightened by the publication around that time of the book, “Presidential Lies”, in which the author, Shepard Campbell, claimed that he was "beyond question," the best golfer ever to inhabit the White House. Apparently, he possessed a fluid, graceful swing which he acquired when young, and often scored in the high 70s.  But because his predecessor as US President, Dwight D Eisenhower, drew so much attention to golf, JFK considered it prudent to keep his own proficiency at the game a secret.

Still, he had his own, monogrammed golf clubs and bags with the lettering "JFK Washington DC."  My best efforts, however, have failed to trace another set of clubs, presented to him by Irish Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, during an official visit to the White House in the early 1960s.

Meanwhile, I retain precious memories of February 1997 and a diplomatic gathering at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.  US Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith – JFK’s sister - was very much at ease during the early-morning get-together with the media, not least because of her sporting background.

"We all played golf as youngsters," she said of her formative years, growing up as a member of the famous Kennedy clan of Massachusetts.  When I enquired as to her handicap, she pretended to take umbrage, saying "That's a mean question."  Then the ambassador added mischievously: "My handicap is two."

The notion of single-figure skills led us to her illustrious brother who, by her estimation, "had a very good swing, considering his back problems." Interestingly, President Kennedy avoided Washington's Burning Tree club, a favourite haunt of politicians, in favour of Chevy Chase GC, where he was less likely to be spotted.  But his skills, particularly with a seven-iron, almost became a political embarrassment.

During the 1960 US presidential campaign, JFK happened to stop off the Californian canvass for a golf game at Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula. There, he watched in horror as a seven-iron shot at the short, 139-yard 15th, looked like going straight into the hole. "I'm watching a promising political career coming to an end," he admonished playing partner Paul B Fay Jnr, who was cheering for a hole-in-one.

Kennedy went on to explain: "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 in the White House." Though he rarely played 18 holes because of his back, he often shot 40 or better for nine holes.

In the summer of 1963, about six months before his assassination, Kennedy let it be known that he dearly wished to have America’s idol, Palmer, assess his game.  But it never happened.  Recalling the circumstances, The King said recently:  “I was scheduled to play him (JFK) at Palm Beach Country Club, I think, in 1963, but I got a call that he couldn't play, that his back was bad. So that was that.”  Then a further arrangement was made for later in the year.

It is only relatively recently that Palmer got to see films of Kennedy in golfing action. As it happens, the great man has golf-related photographs of himself with presidents Eisenhower, George HW Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, but none with JFK.  In fact they never actually met.

"It's hard to compare Ike and JFK, because Ike was a much older man when I played with him, whereas Kennedy was in his mid-40s,” he said after seeing the film.  “President Clinton's swing might be a little bit more athletic [than JFK's]. Not much more so, just a little bit."

All of which simply adds to the mystique surrounding a truly iconic figure.

- Dermot Gilleece

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