By Michael Trostel
Museum Moment: The White House Putting Green
May 12, 2011
With temperatures climbing and sunlight stretching longer into the evening, we often find ourselves looking longingly out the office window, dreaming of a quick getaway to play nine holes or get in some short-game practice.
Whether your office is in a city skyscraper, a small rural shop or a pillared mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the golf bug knows no limits – nor does it discriminate among job titles.
In the spring of 1954, at the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a putting green was installed just outside the most important “office” in the United States – on the South Lawn of the White House.
Al Radko, northeastern director of the USGA Green Section, oversaw the construction of the 3,000-square-foot green, located just 50 paces from the Oval Office. With assistance from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Golf Course Superintendents and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, construction was completed within a few weeks.
An avid golfer, Eisenhower played more than 800 rounds during his two-term presidency. He picked up the game in 1925, at his wife’s encouragement, as a way to relieve stress. But his devotion grew over the years and extended far beyond the course. He spent countless hours contemplating the game’s intricacies, dissecting recent rounds, studying the mechanics of the golf swing and worrying about his putting stroke – the weakest part of his game. The green featured undersized holes to help Eisenhower improve his putting, as well as a bunker off to one side.
“I remember that he would be sitting at his desk when the last visitor went out the door.” said David Eisenhower, the president’s nephew. “He would slowly put on his golf cleats and his cap, take off his coat and wander into the backyard to putt.”
Rather than constantly defending the president’s frequent trips to the golf course, the White House embraced it as a savvy way to diffuse a potential health issue. They asserted that golf was good for Ike’s physical and mental health, and his presence on the golf course – or putting green – showed that he had fully recovered from the heart attack he had suffered in September of 1955.
Eisenhower conveyed his thanks to the Association in a letter to USGA President Ike Grainger. “As you may know,” Eisenhower wrote, “I enjoy and need the exercise I get from occasional golf practice and this makes it easy for me to slip out for a half hour or so whenever I find the time.”
Eisenhower’s morning routine included swinging a pitching wedge. He frequently carried a club in the Oval Office, taking swings while dictating to his secretary. Many afternoons, he would grab his wedge, 8-iron and putter and retreat to the South Lawn for some practice. Upon taking office, President John F. Kennedy was astonished to find many cleat marks in the floor of the Oval Office, leading from the desk to the double doors that opened to the putting green.
Even newsreels at the time took note of Eisenhower’s affection for the putting green, running a lighthearted piece on the president’s irritation at some unwelcome visitors on the green. “Squirrels have created a nutty problem at the White House with President Eisenhower complaining that the four-legged vandals are tearing up his private putting green.”
In the post-Eisenhower era, every president except Jimmy Carter has played golf, but his successors didn’t use the putting green with as much zeal or frequency. Under the direction of Ike’s former vice president, Richard Nixon, the green was removed in the early 1970s.
At the 1994 Presidents Cup, however, Bill Clinton approached USGA President Reg Murphy and golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., about restoring the putting green. As it had 40 years before, help came from the USGA. Stan Zontek, the USGA Green Section’s Mid-Atlantic director, was tabbed as chief agronomist on the restoration. Ironically, Zontek was trained by Radko, one of the designers of the original green.
Clinton, who averaged more than 50 rounds a year during his White House tenure, opted against the small bunker that was adjacent to the original green, making it virtually impossible for passers-by to locate the green from outside the White House’s gates. According to Zontek, the easiest way to pinpoint the green’s location 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.”
Ironically, as the White House putting green was being restored under Bill Clinton, the green at the vice president’s quarters was being demolished. Four years after a putting green was installed at Quarters A, the vice president’s official residence, at the request of Dan Quayle, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, who was not a golfer, had the green removed in favor of a sand volleyball court.
Our country’s 44th president, Barack Obama, is also an avid golfer, playing more than 50 rounds in his first year in the White House. Not only has Obama been seen multiple times on the putting green, but he played nine holes at the Andrews Air Force Base golf course just hours before a top-secret meeting to review final preparations for the military operation that eventually ended with the death of terrorist Osama bin Laden. In fact, Obama was photographed wearing golf shoes in the Oval Office that afternoon.
This June, the U.S. Open will return to the Washington, D.C., area for the first time in 14 years. The 111th national championship will be held at Congressional Country Club, a little more than 10 miles from the White House. The USGA Museum will have on-site exhibits at Congressional and at several Bethesda, Md., and Washington, D.C., Marriott hotels highlighting the connection between golf and American politics. A collection of artifacts, photographs and video will accompany text written on subjects ranging from Dwight Eisenhower’s secretive scores to John F. Kennedy’s near hole-in-one to the history of the White House putting green.
Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A letter from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to USGA President Ike Grainger. (USGA Museum)
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (USGA Museum)
Ike Grainger, former president of the United States Golf Association. (USGA Museum)