'First off the Tee' by Don Van Natta, Jr.

By: Bob Spiwak


Ever used a "Billigan" playing golf? That is the name President Bill Clinton gave to the several mulligans he would take during a round of golf, though his scorecard was usually in the high-80s even after taking over 100 strokes at times.

This is but a snippet in a wonderful, funny and at times sad book about our golfing presidents. "Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush" is the subtitle of "First Off the Tee" by Don Van Natta, Jr., the author of the award-winning "Wonder Girl," a biography of Babe Didriksen Zaharias.

I was reading that book and, in researching the author, discovered this one whose title was just too good to pass up. The book is also excellent as both golfing biographies and historical views of the nation during the administrations of each of the named presidents.

Merely reading the prologue is like looking at computer thumbnails of the nation's leaders, their foibles and world events surrounding them.

The book is divided into sections: Part 1: The Purists; Part 2: Worst off The Tee; Part 3: Hail to the Cheats; Part 4: 41 and 43 (the Bush men); followed by an epilogue, The Allure of the Game.

Van Natta is a master wordsmith and of high stature in the press community, which probably made possible his having access to these presidents whom he interviewed at least, and at best played alongside during a round of golf. Having the support of Bob Hope and several charities were certainly no handicap.

There is too much to detail here, but lots of highlighted vignettes. Eisenhower, probably the most devoted of all presidents to golf, chewed up the wooden floor of the Oval Office after years of walking from his desk to his White House putting green in his spikes. (One of Richard Nixon's first acts as Ike's successor was to have the boards replaced.) The reader learns that Eisenhower was reviled by the press and public because he spent so much time on a golf course. The famed Eisenhower Cabin at Augusta National was built especially for him and his wife Mamie, and was actually named Mamie's Cabin.

John Kennedy would not participate in golf in any area where there were photographers, being of the mind that it was bad politics to play golf when the public expected the world's leader to be attending the affairs of state, and the perception of the public that golf was a bastion of the rich and snooty. (Well, some things don't change, do they?)

Of them all, however, Clinton had to be the most fascinating before, during and after Monica Lewinsky was his playing partner. The "Billigans" mentioned at the head of this review are merely a teaser. Read the book and see why "Slick Willie" is still a celebrity, still popular among many, and is listed in "Hail to the Cheats."

"First Off the Tee - Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush," by Don Van Natta, Jr. 2003, Public Affairs Books ISBN 1-58648-265-3

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. Though suffering a four-year lapse, he's back to being a fanatical golfer. Now a contributing editor for Cybergolf, Spiwak has written articles for almost every golf magazine in the Western world. Bob's most treasured golf antiquity is a nod he got from Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit. Spiwak lives in Mazama, Wash., with his wife and several pets next to his fabled ultra-private Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club.

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