By Ron Driscoll
Museum Moment: Kennedy’s 4-Iron Provided His Greatest Golf Thrill
Nov 25, 2010
Perhaps it was the chronic back pain he suffered from that kept John F. Kennedy from being a regular on the golf course. Perhaps it was the publicity surrounding his Republican predecessor, President Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower, and Ike’s love of golf that kept Kennedy, a Democrat, from pursuing the game too avidly. Or perhaps JFK was more inclined to use his obvious athletic talents on a variety of pursuits, such as sailing, tennis, swimming and, of course, touch football, rather than confining it to one game.
However, there is strong evidence that Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was the most accomplished golfer to inhabit the White House, with a handicap estimated at 10 or better. He played the game from an early age, mostly at the Hyannisport Club on Cape Cod, a stone’s throw from his family’s summer retreat. The Kennedy compound later became the “Summer White House” for the 1,000 days of Kennedy’s presidency.
In his book First Off the Tee, about presidents who played golf, author Don Van Natta Jr., writes: "Despite a bad back, Kennedy possessed a graceful, effortless swing, which allowed him to easily rank as the best player among the 14 presidential golfers.”
Bob O’Rourke of Marstons Mills, Mass., was playing in his usual Saturday morning foursome at Hyannisport in the spring of 1962 when two players and five “observers” came up swiftly on his group.
“We got to the sixth hole and suddenly the President was behind us,” O’Rourke recalled. “He was playing with Paul Fay, the undersecretary of the Navy. The President asked if we would like to play along.”
The group, now numbering six – plus five Secret Service men who monitored the proceedings from the tree line – played together for two holes before Kennedy and Fay went ahead on the par-3 eighth hole.
“People always mention the fact that he had a bad back,” said O’Rourke, 82. “But he had a good swing and he hit some good shots, especially on the 8th hole. He hit a 4-iron right up near the green. But he was the kind of guy who didn’t take it too seriously.”
The 4-iron that Kennedy hit on the 195-yard eighth hole at Hyannisport that day was probably the same club that was eventually donated to the USGA Museum about a year after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. JFK used the MacGregor Tourney FC 4000 model club to hit what he considered one of his best shots, according to Francis Ouimet, a fellow Massachusetts resident who knew the family well and helped procure the club for the USGA Museum.
In an Oct. 13, 1964, letter to Joseph C. Dey, executive director of the USGA, Ouimet described the par-3 17th hole at Hyannisport: “That is the hole, you will recall, that Jack Kennedy nearly made in one. Though 130 yards is not too far, I understand the day Jack played it the wind was blowing very hard against, so that his effort was a good one. … In any event, the late President got his greatest golfing thrill in putting the ball inches from the cup with the 4-iron you now have.”
Bruce Besse, 82, of Centerville, Mass., has been a member at Hyannisport for some 50 years, and he concurred with Ouimet’s assessment of the 17th hole, which sits on a point by Nantucket Sound.
“I’ve seen some very good players, including [former PGA Tour pro] Bob Toski, hit a 2- or 3-iron on that hole with the wind in their face,” said Besse.
Besse remembered a time in the late 1940s when JFK was dating the actress Gene Tierney, who was staying on Great Island, not far from the golf club. He also recalled the day that he suddenly had an audience when he was hitting balls at a driving range in Hyannis.
“There’s JFK standing behind me, in his tennis outfit, all white,” said Besse. “He said, ‘You’re hitting those pretty good.’ We talked for a few minutes and then he moved on. He was a pretty regular guy, just like anybody else.” Besse added, with a laugh, “Like all the Kennedys, he never had any money in his pocket.”
Besse mentioned another possible reason for the rare sightings of Kennedy on the course. Besse often caddied for Kennedy’s mother, Rose, and recalled her as a caddie’s dream: she always hit it down the middle, she only had five or six clubs in her bag and she generally played only nine holes.
“Rose played a lot of golf, but she rarely used the club,” Besse said. “That would have been considered socializing with the enemy. The Hyannisport Club was mostly Republican at the time.”
Besse recalled the 1960 presidential election when Kennedy opposed Richard M. Nixon. “When Jack ran for president, he lost the Cape by probably a 3-to-1 margin. It wasn’t until he got into the White House that the demographics changed and a lot of Democrats started moving down here from the Boston area.”
While running for president, Kennedy was well aware that some Americans had become disenchanted with Eisenhower's golf obsession. According to Van Natta, Kennedy was almost maniacal about his refusal to allow photographers to take his picture while holding a golf club.
Van Natta recounted an incident when Kennedy was playing with Paul Fay in California, shortly before the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Kennedy nearly made an ace, and as Fay yelled, “Go in! Go in!” the ball stopped just short of the hole. JFK looked stricken, and told Fay, “You’re yelling for that damn ball to go in and I'm watching a promising political career coming to an end. If that ball had gone into that hole, in less than an hour the word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get into the White House.”
Once he made the White House, Kennedy occasionally practiced in secret on the White House lawn on foggy mornings, with a security aide shagging the balls. Kennedy’s legendary wit was in evidence in a golf story recounted in Golf Digest. Kennedy invited then-Connecticut governor Abraham Ribicoff to play nine holes as they discussed a possible Cabinet post for Ribicoff. The press asked Ribicoff what he shot, to which he replied, “Forty-three, and Mr. Kennedy beat me by one stroke.”
Ribicoff had actually shot 38 to Kennedy’s 42. JFK sent a wire to Ribicoff that read: “President deeply disturbed at newspaper report of your golf score, insists that anyone connected with his administration be as clean as a hound’s tooth. Please wire me if you get work.” Kennedy eventually appointed Ribicoff as his secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
The Kennedy family’s long association with athletic activity provided a good springboard for Kennedy to address the nation's declining physical fitness. As president, he reinvigorated the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, saying, “We do not want our children to become a generation of spectators.”
In his letter to Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, thanking her for the donation of the golf club, Dey wrote, “We are delighted to have this tangible reminder of President Kennedy and of his interest in physical fitness through sport.”
Kennedy's golf clubs, split into two lots of woods and irons, sold in 1996 for a combined $1.1 million during the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate auction.
Kennedy was elected president 50 years ago this month at the age of 43, still the youngest president elected. He was assassinated 47 years ago this month. The Kennedy family retains a presence at Hyannisport: Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, is still a member, and each fall, she hosts a golf tournament to benefit the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.
Ron Driscoll is the copy editor for USGA Communications. E-mail him at email@example.com.
The 4-iron that Kennedy hit on the 195-yard eighth hole at Hyannisport that day was probably the same club that was eventually donated to the USGA Museum about a year after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. JFK used the MacGregor Tourney FC 4000 model club to hit what he considered one of his best shots, according to Francis Ouimet, a fellow Massachusetts resident who knew the family well and helped procure the club for the USGA Museum. (USGA Museum)
President Kennedy on first hole in late afternoon round of golf at The Hyannisport Club, July 20, 1963. First of a three-picture sequence. (AP Photo)