George H.W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, dies at age 94
December 01, 2018
By Bill Fields, Special to PGATOUR.COM
- December 01, 2018
In Memoriam: George H. W. Bush
Golf has been a common recreational thread among leaders of the United States, and George H.W. Bush, the 41st President, enthusiastically embraced the game most of his life. Bush endeared himself to fellow golfers with his brisk pace of play and contributed to golf in a variety of ways after leaving the White House.
Bush, who died Friday evening at age 94, was inducted into the World Golf Hall in 2011 through the Lifetime Achievement category. Three years earlier he received the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor, that recognizes the spirit and ideals of the nine-time USGA champion.
“Golf has meant a lot to me,” Bush said in 2008. “It means friendship, integrity and character. I grew up in a family that was lucky enough to have golf at the heart of it for a while. My father was a scratch player, and my mother was also a good golfer. It’s a very special game.”
"We are all saddened by the news of President Bush’s death," Monahan said. "While I had the privilege of knowing him through various golf activities and initiatives that he supported, Tim Finchem worked very closely with President Bush during his tenure as PGA TOUR Commissioner."
"As we join the world in mourning President Bush’s passing, the PGA TOUR and entire golf community share a deep appreciation for all that he meant to our sport," Finchem said. "From his love of playing to his selfless dedication and support, golf held a special place for President Bush. ...
"Add it all up, and we truly are fortunate to have had such an esteemed and compassionate individual serve as a strong advocate for golf and be so generous with his time and skills to promote the game he loved. We owe him a great debt for shaping what golf is all about today. President Bush will be greatly missed."
For Bush, golf fit into a wide range of sporting pursuits. He played baseball at Yale, jogged, played tennis, liked to skipper a powerboat at high speed and hunted and fished. As President from 1989-93, he had an artificial-turf putting green and horseshoes pit installed outside the White House.
“Sports are good for the soul,” Bush said to Forbes.com in 2010, “good for life.”
Between his election in November 1988 and when he took the oath of office three months later, he mixed in many athletic activities at his retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, as he prepared for the presidency. “It’s not a transition,” a Bush staff member joked to The New York Times. “It’s ‘The Wide World of Sports.’ ”
Former President George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara pose with the Presidents Cup in 2015. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
Although Bush didn’t play golf until he was in high school, his family was deeply rooted in the sport. His grandfather, George H. Walker, was USGA president in 1920 and the man for whom the Walker Cup—the biennial amateur competition between males golfers in the United States and Great Britain—is named. Bush’s father, Prescott, was USGA president in 1935. Like George Walker, Prescott Bush was a skilled golfer, an eight-time club champion at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he had the course record, 66, for many years.
George H.W. Bush’s athleticism made him a capable player—he gave himself the self-deprecating nickname “Mr. Smooth”—and he would have been much better if not for his putting woes. The longtime Cape Arundel professional and a frequent Bush golf companion, Ken Raynor, described Bush’s play to Sports Illustrated in 1988: “He’d rather face Congress than a three-foot putt. The rest of his game is very strong. His best score on the course is 76. He’d be an easy 11 handicap if he could get his putting under control.”
Bush fought the yips, for which he found relief in the late 1980s from a long putter, a 52-inch model called a Pole-Kat that had an immediate impact on his game in the summer of 1989. “His first putt on the first hole was a 20-footer, and he putt it right in the jar,” Raynor told the Orlando Sentinel. “He got the big smile on his face, and for the rest of the day he sank putts from all over the place. He was delirious. He wound up shooting an 81, which was his best score in a long, long time. He came back out and played on Sunday and Monday. All of a sudden, he enjoys golf again.”
In a letter the following spring to his friend Dan Jenkins, the author and sportswriter, Bush confirmed how the club invigorated his golf. “The long putter paved the way,” Bush wrote. “I don’t sink putts now but the long one has given me confidence to follow through, thus avoiding the automatic 4 putt greens. Now there is light at the end of the short-game tunnel. [But] I’m not ready for a guy that shoots 77 or ever shot 77.”
Bush was convivial but competitive on the course. “He would never give a putt. He makes you putt them out,” former Defense Secretary and Bush golf partner Melvin Laird told The New York Times after Bush was elected President. “But a lot of people will be giving him putts from now on …”
Although playing in front of galleries made him nervous, Bush did so a number of times. When he was President, he played in the Doug Sanders Kingwood Celebrity Classic pro-am in May 1990 in a group consisting of Sanders, then-PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman and Bush’s oldest son, George W.
Before he teed off, Bush told the spectators: “I would have but one request: Keep on being the points of light, keep on with the concept that it really is right for one American to help another, and please don’t laugh at the drive off the first tee.”
John O’Connor, who caddied that day for Beman, recalled how Bush’s genuine, down-to-earth character was revealed. “Everyone else was uptight, but he made us feel loose,” O’Connor said to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “At one point, on the 15th tee, Beman asked him where he was going after Houston. Bush said, ‘Of course, I have that Gorbachev thing next week’ like it was nothing at all. Here he is talking about that ‘Gorbachev thing’ like he’s having a load of lumber brought in to fix his house or something.”
After playing golf with Bush in 1990, Jenkins described the First Golfer in a Golf Digest article: “The prez played extremely fast but enjoyed himself,” Jenkins wrote, “ “even when he flubbed a chip shot, three-putted and heard an onlooker on the other side of a fence holler, ‘Does your husband play golf, too?’ He laughed.”
One of Bush’s most notable rounds was at the pro-am for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 1995. Bush played with President Bill Clinton, former President Gerald Ford, Bob Hope and the tournament’s defending champion, Scott Hoch. It was reported that Bush turned the tables on the 1992 presidential election, shooting a 92 to Clinton’s 93.
If Bush’s golf wasn’t always exemplary, the pace at which he went at the game was. Slow play was anathema to Bush, for whom 18 holes that took more than three hours would have been worse than dental surgery. “It’s not what you make on a hole but how many ticks on the stopwatch it’s taken you to hole out,” Raynor told Sports Illustrated. “Cart polo, we call it. We’ve done 18 holes in 2 hours and 20 minutes.”
“You put your track shoes on when you’re playing with him,” said Hale Irwin.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and 2016 presidential contender, takes after his father, telling the Miami Herald that his fastest round (1 hour, 36 minutes) was, no surprise, in the company of his father. “You can’t get much faster than that,” Jeb Bush said.
The Bush family’s golf mantra, as the 41st President he told Don Van Natta Jr., author of First Off the Tee, was simple: “We’re not good, but we’re fast.”
Bush’s involvement with golf extended well beyond his own rounds, particularly after he left the White House.
He was the first Honorary Chairman of The First Tee—the youth outreach program that uses golf to teach life lessons—and promoted The First Tee when it launched in late 1997. “I’m very enthusiastic about The First Tee,” Bush said then, “and I believe it will expand interest in the game. We’ll be uplifting the lives of a lot of kids.” George W. Bush, the 43rd President, succeeded his father as Honorary Chairman in 2011.
Bush was honorary chairman of The Presidents Cup in 1996 and attended each of the biennial competitions through 2009, the same year he was awarded the PGA TOUR’s Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the TOUR.
“Working with Tim Finchem and getting to know so many of the TOUR’s members has been one of the great joys of my post-White House life,” Bush said, “and my gratitude goes to all who were fully aware of my skills on the course and yet chose to support this welcome decision anyway.”
The recipient of the PGA of America’s Distinguished Service Award in 1997, Bush received a distinction dear to his heart in 2011 when Cape Arundel Golf Club renamed its clubhouse “41 House” in honor of one of its longtime members. “This golf course has meant a great deal to my family over the years,” Bush said, “and we all have many happy memories of golf games won and lost.”