From the Golf Journal Archives - A First Green for the First Golfer

Feb 18, 2011

If the President decides to work on his putting stroke, he doesn’t have to venture too far from his office.

By Marty Parkes

(Note: This article originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Golf Journal.)

IT WAS PERHAPS one of the easiest sells President Clinton would ever have to make. No arm-twisting. No threats of economic sanctions.

No, this pitch was fun.

It began last September, when Clinton attended a dinner celebrating the inaugural President’s Cup in nearby Lake Manassas, Va. Also at that dinner were USGA president Reg Murphy and golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. Clinton suggested to Murphy that the USGA Centennial would provide the perfect opportunity to bring golf back to the White House.

What he had in mind was the restoration of the putting green – one that had been constructed during the Eisenhower Administration but removed during the early 1970s. Jones and Murphy concurred; Jones offered to design it and oversee its construction, while Murphy committed the USGA Green Section’s assistance in helping maintain it. That help would ultimately come through the hands of agronomist Stan Zontek, director of the USGA Green Section’s Mid-Atlantic region that includes the District of Columbia.

The initial White House green, located some 50 paces from the Oval Office, was constructed back in the 1950s. Ironically, one of the key participants in its construction was USGA agronomist Al Radko, who trained Zontek, who’s now tending to its restoration.

Dwight Eisenhower gave the green constant use throughout his two terms of office, and hence it became known as the Eisenhower green. But his successors didn’t use it as often, and some of them weren’t golfers at all. Subsequently, during the administration of Ike’s vice president, Richard Nixon, the green was removed.

“I told President Clinton that building a putting green at the White House should actually be considered a restoration,” Jones said. “I said I’d be pleased to examine the feasibility of building a new surface on the same location as the Eisenhower green.”

Using old photos as a guide, Jones labored to restore a green on the site of the old. Clinton, though, opted not to include a small bunker this time. It’s virtually impossible for passers-by to locate the green from outside the White House’s gates; according to Zontek, the easiest way is to examine the back of a $20 bill. “It would be just above and to the right of the zero of the number 20 on the lower-left corner,” he explains.

The restoration cost U.S. taxpayers nothing. All machinery, materials and manpower involved was donated. Work started when the weather warmed this spring, and soon Jones’s associate, Doug Ingram, spent a week in late April and early May contouring the soil and installing the irrigation system. He knew he had found the correct spot for the green when he encountered old gravel and drain lines that had been installed for the Eisenhower green.

“We knew we couldn’t use the old drain lines because they were 1950s vintage,” Ingram said. “They just weren’t suitable to meet today’s standards for a USGA green. Some of the big, old bits of gravel and pieces of red drain tile we uncovered, though, made great souvenirs of the project.”

The new green is built according to USGA specifications for putting green construction. Because these specifications were first published back in 1960, the old gravel and drain tiles
discovered during the restoration represent a rudimentary system.

Constructing a green to USGA specifications is not unlike baking a cake; one layer is stacked atop another, each designed to enhance a different maintenance or conditioning practice.

The USGA’s main role in the project started about the time that most of the construction was complete and the washed sod put down. Zontek began periodic visits to the White House to advise on the maintenance of the surface. He was frequently joined by Glenn Smickley, golf course superintendent of the nearby Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, who also provided counsel. Their job? To teach the White House grounds staff, who already tend to a veritable arboretum, the basics about putting green maintenance.

It’s also important to note that the nation’s capital isn’t the easiest place in the world to grow grass. It’s located in a geographic area of extreme weather conditions – stifling, sultry summer stretches and snowy, frigid winters. This summer’s long stretch of unusually hot weather has further complicated the green’s grow-in process.

The White House green started out a rather bumpy surface. It was cut daily at a relatively high three-eighths of an inch, but with the help of a roller to smooth out the rough spots, it began to take shape. Initially, light, daily waterings were applied, then tapered back as the roots extended deeper into the ground. Slowly the mowing height was dropped to a quarter-inch. Within weeks a decent putting green had been nurtured.

“The site of the green on the White House lawn is about as good as you could possibly have,” Smickley said. “Mr. Jones really did a marvelous job in the restoration. A large oak, known as the Hoover oak because it was planted by Herbert Hoover, stands nearby. But we didn’t encounter any insurmountable obstacles because of it. Roots weren’t a problem. Besides, the tree stands on the west side of the green and receives the late-afternoon sun. It would be much more of an obstacle if it stood on the east side and blocked out the early morning light.”

Smickley emphasizes that the maintenance program followed at the White House is virtually the same as you’d find at any course in the region, including his own. “We’re following the exact same management practices,” he said. “We’re trying to get this green to behave the same as any other USGA-specification one. We hope to reduce the mowing height to 3/16 of an inch or less by the autumn, with about 5/32 or lower as our ultimate target. That should produce a Stimpmeter reading roughly in the 8½ foot range.” Not exactly U.S. Open standards, but comparable to what you’re likely to find at many local municipal courses.

The green has five holes cut: one in the center, with four spread out along the perimeter. Flagsticks bear the presidential seal. All in all, according to Smickley, it’s an impressive site and one the president frequents as often as four to five times a week.

No doubt the green will help make putting the best part of President Clinton’s game. Now, about that practice tee...

FOR THE USGA, STAN’S THE MAN

When the USGA became involved in the restoration of the White House putting green, the responsibility fell on Stan Zontek, an agronomist in the USGA’s Mid-Atlantic Region whose territory includes the District of Columbia. His frequent visits to the White House are special, as he readily admits.

I used to live outside Washington in Silver Spring, Md., so I’d been to the White House before. When all the relatives come and visits, that’s one of the things you’d do – visit the White House. But then you see the East Room, West Room, the Blue Room and out you go.

Of course, you have to go through a pretty thorough security clearance to get onto the grounds. It’s all matter-of-fact, which kind of surprised me, although I didn’t know what to expect. Then you meet the person you have the appointment with and go about your business, though you can’t help thinking about where you are. You’re walking across the front portico of the White House and you’re looking down at the Washington Monument, the ponds and the flowers and you think to yourself, ‘Wow.’ It kind of sends a chill up your spine. When you think about it, it’s more than just a golf green in somebody’s backyard. It’s the golf green for the White House. It’s a piece of history, and that strikes you, the importance of what you were doing.

The President has been there at the time of some of my visits. Because of the historical significance of what we’re doing, we want lots of photos. So I’ve got one of these telephoto lenses and I’m taking a picture where I can get the green and the Oval Office in the background, and one of the people there, someone from our little agronomic group, said, ‘I don’t think I’d do that. You’re not supposed to point a camera toward the Oval Office when the President is there.’

But the security guards, you go there long enough and they get to know you. Heck, they come out with questions for their lawn and everything else. Then you get the other people – in the coats and ties. They’re curious, too; they want to see how this thing is going. Again, it’s literally 50 paces from the Oval Office.

I don’t know if I’ll meet the President. If it happens, it happens. I’ve been invited to come back to go on a special tour of the White House, probably the things that people just don’t see. Actually, I’ve done that already. It’s a humbling experience.

I’ll be back a few times before we go through the fall renovation, then maybe monthly after that. It would depend on whether they need us or not, because we’re really there to teach them how to take care of a putting green. And I’m impressed by how really good those people are. They know nothing about greens, but they really have learned quickly. We are simply doing something for the game and for the President, and if I can help in some small way, then that’s what we’re here for. –Stan Zontek

When Robert Trent Jones Jr. offered to help design and construct the White House putting green, he did so in a literal sense. That’s him in the tie, along with associate Doug Ingram. (USGA Museum)


The new White House putting green (above) was restored on the site of the original, built when President Eisenhower (below) was in office. (USGA Museum)


(USGA Museum)