Former President Ford had a lifelong love affair with golf

December 27, 2006
By staff

From the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. Presidents have taken to the golf course whenever they needed a break from the overwhelming pressures of the job.

Former President Gerald R. Ford, who died Tuesday night at the age of 93, was no exception.

"He loved the game because of how it brought people from all different walks of life together," PGA TOUR and Champions Tour veteran Peter Jacobsen said. "He might have been in politics but I think he was in the public relations business because he was so good with people."

PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem concurred.

"For all these contributions and for his personal qualities of integrity and honor, President Ford was a tremendous ambassador for golf," he said. "We're indebted to him and we will miss him."

Ford may have played center at the University of Michigan and entertained offers from two NFL teams upon graduation, but he had a lifelong love affair with golf.

He was a regular at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, playing for the first time in 1977 and in his later years being on hand to congratulate winners like Mike Weir and Justin Leonard at the trophy presentation. Ford had a home in the Palm Springs area and was twice honored by the tournament.

"I remember playing with President Ford, Bob Hope and Lawrence Taylor in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic," Jacobsen said. "L.T., one of the greatest NFL players ever, was just in awe to be paired with them, as I was. To see firsthand how much they related to people and cared about others was amazing."

In an historic pairing in 1995, Ford joined two other Presidents -- Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush -- and Bob Hope and defending champion Scott Hoch to play in the tournament. Clinton was the first sitting U.S. President to play in a TOUR event.

Ford also was the honorary chairman of the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994 as the U.S. beat the International Team 20-12. Clinton and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush would follow in his footsteps.

"His presence and involvement was instrumental in launching the Presidents Cup with an aura of sportsmanship and integrity and helped establish a tone for the event that continues today," Finchem said.

Ford's fascination with the game continued throughout his long and rich life as he played in a variety of PGA TOUR events. He also hosted his own celebrity pro-am, the Jerry Ford Invitational, in Vail, Colo., for 25 years.

"Over the years, he willingly lent his name and passion for the game for the benefit of others," Finchem said. "His support included participation in many of our pro-ams and in so doing helping to generate awareness and significant dollars for our tournament charities.

"For years, President Ford was a fixture at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and befriended many PGA TOUR players. Near his home in Vail, Colorado, President Ford chaired the Jerry Ford Invitational for 25 years, driving significant economic and charitable benefits to the region.

"Many TOUR players made it a point to return year after year to the Invitational out of appreciation for the chance to join President Ford in this worthwhile endeavor."

Jack Nicklaus won the first Jerry Ford Invitational and donated the entire $10,000 first prize back to the organizing committee.

"TOUR players coveted an invitation to the Ford event in Vail," Jacobsen said. "It was an honor to be there with the President. All the greats were there -- top entertainers, athletes, business leaders -- and we all knew it was a very special time and special event."

Ford, a long-time supporter of the PGA TOUR and its charitable mission, also often played in the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, now know as The Honda Classic, and the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, now the Stanford St. Jude Championship, where he made an ace in 1977.

The hole-in-one notwithstanding, Ford was beloved for his misadventures on the golf course. His errant drives that hit several people -- including one 71-year-old woman who needed 10 stitches to seal the cut on her nose -- were reported around the world.

Ford's good friend, Bob Hope, couldn't resist a few barbs.

"He's easy to spot," Hope once said. "He drives the golf cart with the red cross painted on top." Or, "It's not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course," he noted. "You just follow the wounded." And, "You all know (Jerry Ford) -- the most dangerous driver since Ben Hur."

The good-natured Ford, who once uttered the signature phrase that opened the popular TV show "Saturday Night Live," took the kidding in stride.

"I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators," he once said.