Gerald Ford gave golfing presidents a bad name. As a player he wasn't as wretched as generally depicted. But he had a habit of beaning spectators with startlingly crooked tee shots, providing Bob Hope with an endless trove of one-liners.
As in, "Ford is easy to spot on a golf course. He's the one driving the cart with the Red Cross." Or, "There are 51 golf courses in the Palm Springs area. No one knows which one Ford is playing until after his first tee shot." Or, as a token of Mr. Hope's gratitude to the president: "Shanks for the memories."
But Mr. Ford wasn't representative of the golfers-in-chief. To be sure, some like Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson were notorious duffers. But by no means all and by no means Donald Trump.
It's Masters week, a time when the splendour of Augusta National ought to be clearing the mind of the clamour of Trumpian political dysfunction. But the "enemies of the people," as he calls the media, won't let up. Even his golf is in their crosshairs. On the cover of The New Yorker, he's cartooned with a rump the size of Texas walloping balls through White House windows. The Economist's cover features the executive mansion fronted by a pot bunker in which Mr. Trump is supposedly marooned.
But golf is a maladroit metaphor for a failing Mr. Trump. Golf is one thing he is good at. As a player, as a course builder, as a businessman. There are, of course, downsides as well. His charlatan ways. He won an election preaching populism but doesn't like the average Joe playing golf. It's a sport – he's said as much – for elites. He slammed Barack Obama for playing too much golf but, on becoming president, started teeing it up even more frequently himself.
But at least on the subject of golf, Mr. Trump is not out of his depth. That's a far cry from so many political issues on which he lacks intellectual foundation but deigns to spout off half-cocked anyway.
The great majority of presidents, as Don Van Natta notes in his book First Off the Tee, played golf regularly. Mr. Trump, a single-digit handicapper, is the best among them. He's got good distance, arrow-like precision on the greens and he doesn't break the rules. At least not as much as mulligan-a-minute Bill Clinton.
Mr. Trump is a self-made player. With typical Trumposity, he puts it this way. "I'm a believer in ability, not in instruction." Swing gurus say he takes the club back too much on the inside. But courtesy of a big swivel of the hips coming down, like he's doing the rumba, it works. He's put his ego on the line in competitions and won club championships.
High-quality golf requires calm nerves, sharp focus, good rhythm. That's the antithesis of the short-fused blowhard we've come to know. If he could switch his golf course persona to the Oval Office, there might be hope for us all.
For presidents, golf courses have served as great escapes. For Mr. Trump, it's more about ego gratification, a narcotic for his narcissism. He's all about monuments to himself. And what's more fitting than the emerald cathedrals he has built or refashioned and that bear his name.
He's authored many busts in his business career but not in golf. The industry, long in a slump, saw developers jumping out. Risk-taker Mr. Trump jumped in. He owns 17 clubs, including some of the world's best. He had excellent redesign work done on Doral in Florida, on the renowned Turnberry links in Scotland, and he has created a gem of a course on that country's coastline at Aberdeen.
He's not beloved in the golf world. A big tournament was pulled from Doral because of his abusive words about immigrants. He can't get a membership at famed Augusta. Too loud. Too brash.
But if not at Augusta, the golf course is where Mr. Trump belongs. The sport rewards patience, self-control, a rational approach. For a manic president, it's the right kind of tonic.