During the distant 1950s, political opponents and gagsters frequently lampooned the 34th president’s passion for golf. A cartoon book, for example, referred to an imaginary Dwight D. Eisenhower doll this way: “You wind it up, and it hooks and slices for eight years.”
Nonetheless, President Eisenhower’s love of the game helped turn golf into a sport for the masses. According to one historian, 3.2 million Americans played golf when he entered the White House in 1953. When he departed eight years later, that figure had doubled.
It seems appropriate, therefore, that Eisenhower will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., on Monday, making him the first president to take up residence in a sports shrine.
Just as fittingly, the supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II will have his award - a Waterford crystal trophy etched with the signatures of most previous inductees - accepted by the leader of Arnie’s Army, fellow Hall of Famer Arnold Palmer. The two were close friends and played together numerous times.
“I don’t know if anybody else in golf ever has done quite what the president did for the game in bringing it to the world’s attention,” Palmer recalled last week. “We started playing after I won the Masters in 1958. When he was playing pretty good, he shot in the low 80s.”
Despite Eisenhower’s stature, on the golf course, “He never acted like a president,” former Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Hord Hardin told Golf Digest in 1993.
“There was no ceremony,” Hardin recalled. “At the first tee, we’d throw up four balls, and the two closest were partners, the way we did with everyone else.”
During Eisenhower’s eight years as president, he played on more than 1,000 days, according to one study. Such devotion made him a better golfer, though he was hampered by a knee injury suffered when he played football at West Point and didn’t dedicate himself to the game until he was in his 40s.
Like any other duffer, he was frequently frustrated. After one particularly agonizing round, the president joked, “I’m going to pass a law that no one can ask me my score.”
Palmer said Eisenhower “constantly” asked for suggestions when the two negotiated the greens and fairways.
“Here’s a typical story,” said Palmer, who occupies a spot alongside archrival Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods and very few others atop the all-time list of golf superstars. “Once I told him, ‘You might want to keep your right elbow closer to your side when you swing. I think that might give you a little more power.’
“So he liked the idea, and tried it. You know how military men usually wear their belt buckle turned around to the right? He kept the elbow so close that he scraped it on the buckle, and it started bleeding. He got a big kick out of that.”
Eisenhower played often at Augusta National, where he was a member, and at Burning Tree Club in Bethesda. He also practiced putting regularly on the South Lawn of the White House.
Another favorite golfing spot was Denver, where Eisenhower vacationed during his early years as president and where he suffered his first heart attack on Sept. 24, 1955.
Unfortunately, perhaps, the president did not confine his Denver outings to golf courses.
Practicing his swing in his suite at the famous Brown Palace Hotel, he whacked a ball into the mantel. The resulting dent remains in what is now called the Eisenhower Suite.
Eisenhower’s buddy Palmer can’t recall the last time they played together. After the president left the White House, heart problems soon ended his days on the links.
“He used to call me up and say, ‘You know, Arnie, the doctors won’t let me play anymore, but come on up to [Eisenhower’s retirement farm in] Gettysburg for a visit,’ and we’d spend time talking about things we had in common.”
Such memories of their friendship linger for Palmer, who at 80 is two years older than Eisenhower was when he died in 1969. Palmer was a charter member of the Hall of Fame in 1974, although the current facility didn’t open its doors until 1998.
Eisenhower was selected unanimously in June in the lifetime-achievement category by the World Golf Foundation’s board of directors, which includes leading golf executives from around the globe. Other inductees next week will include Lanny Wadkins, Jose Maria Olazabal and Christy O’Connor, bringing the total number of inductees to 129.
Each new inductee will have his own exhibit featuring relevant personal and golf items, plus a locker in the Hall of Fame’s Member Locker Room and a handcrafted bronze-relief plaque displayed on the Hall’s Wall of Fame.
“This is the first time President Eisenhower was nominated by our international voting body, and he shot right to the top,” said Hall of Fame Chief Executive Jack Peter. “He is among a small group of extremely important, high-profile figures in history who contributed mightily to the health and growth of golf.”
Eisenhower also contributed mightily to a furor in Washington during the spring of 1953, when the White House announced he would skip throwing out the first ball on Opening Day of the baseball season at Griffith Stadium to play golf at Augusta National. Barely three months after his inauguration, the popular president was practically deemed a traitor by people who considered the ceremonial toss a sacrosanct sporting tradition.
Luckily for all concerned, the game was rained out, and the president made the rescheduled home opener a few days later. But he never apologized for putting golf first.