George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott, who married Dorothy Walker, was the best golfer in the family. Also a one-time USGA president, in 1935, Prescott was scratch or better in his prime and won eight club championships at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, location of the famed Bush family compound where many of the world’s most powerful visited. It was Prescott who blazed the political trail for the Bushes, serving as a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952-63.
Usually overlooked in Bush family golf history is Prescott’s father, Samuel P. Bush. A railroad and steel executive, S.P. Bush was one of the four founding members of Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. The National Golf Links of America played a role here as well. Bush and three friends visited the course in 1913, and after their round they mused about building their own private club.
Two years later, they lured a talented and ambitious Scottish-born golf architect to central Ohio, and Donald Ross plotted a course on a parcel of leased farmland. Prescott, home for the summer from Yale, where he was a member of the golf team, worked on the construction crew, earning $1 per day. He was known to play Scioto often in the year or two after it opened in 1916. Following World War I, golf was an asset in his business and political careers.
“My dad was a very low-handicap player, and he was in the Senate when Ike [Dwight Eisenhower] was president,” Bush said in a Golf Channel interview. “And he played with Eisenhower quite a bit. Through the eyes of my dad I got the insight into being a president. Not on issues, but on what made him relax and what kind of a good sport he was. I vicariously learned about golf because my dad used to play with Ike.”
As president, Bush had but one mandate, also inspired by his father: play fast. What we might call “ready golf” he referred to as “cart polo.” Bush told Don Van Natta for the book, First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters, from Taft to Bush, that “it isn’t a race to finish fast. It is just that the game should not be drawn out and other players should not be inconvenienced by some high handicap guy like me plumb-bobbing his putt and taking five practice swings on every shot.”
At his best, Bush carried an 11 handicap, but by 1999 it had doubled to 22, and he lamented his diminishing abilities, despite all the advances in equipment, in a piece he penned for Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul. The title was telling: “I Hate Golf – I Love Golf!” Putting caused him the most torment, so much so that during one round at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club, Bush invoked a “no-laughing rule.” It lasted until the par-3 16th hole. The president struck a lovely 9-iron to 6 feet, but soon he was sizing up a 4-footer for double bogey. Among the three putts he already had taken was a clean shank. “As I have done several times before,” he wrote, “I decided right then and there to give up golf. I hate it.”
Of course, he didn’t quit. He concluded the piece by writing: “Golf? I hate it, sure, but I really love it. I’ll be on the first tee tomorrow at 6:50 a.m.” Usually, that next round would be with one or more of his four sons – Jeb, a former governor of Florida, Neil, Marvin, or his eldest, George W., the 43rd president of the United States.
In 1994, Bush was named Ambassador of Golf by Northern Ohio Golf Charities, the organization that hosted the long-running PGA Tour event in Akron, Ohio, known as the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational. He played in the Wednesday pro-am at Firestone Country Club with a group that included Hale Irwin and freshly minted PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.
Before the round, Irwin handed out new balls to the group. Bush wanted to know about the dimple count. Irwin replied that there were 374 dimples. “That won’t do it,” Bush said with a straight face, “because I’m turning it over a little more with these new sticks and I’m finding that 378 is best.”
Irwin knew he’d been had.
After the round, Bush was in a hurry to clean up before the awards ceremony, but a large crowd converged around his cart as Secret Service and police tried to clear the way. A reporter wanted to ask Bush about the new Presidents Cup that had been created and how it continued the team match-play traditions started by the Ryder Cup and Walker Cup.
“Stop the cart,” he barked to the driver. “I’m glad you mentioned the Walker Cup. Most people tend to overlook it in the conversation. I like the idea of the Presidents Cup. I think it will do very well in the future.”
He served as honorary chairman of the Presidents Cup in 1996, and he attended every edition of the biennial matches through 2009.
In 1997, Bush received the PGA of America Distinguished Service Award, the same year he agreed to serve as honorary chairman of a new grow-the-game initiative for youngsters called The First Tee. In 2008, Bush became the third non-competitive golfer to earn the Bob Jones Award, which is bestowed upon someone who displays distinguished sportsmanship and emulates the attitude and spirit of the great amateur Jones. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby shared the award in 1978.
Further recognition was conferred upon him in 2009 when he received the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In addition to serving an advisory role on the Captains Club at Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament, Bush was honorary chair of the USGA Museum and Archives and an honorary member of the PGA.
Whenever called upon, he was there to support the game. And there was a good reason for that – it had given him so much.
“When I was POTUS,” Bush told Van Natta, “golf was a great way to totally relax and play with friends or family.”
But nothing beat the simple joy of a family game at Cape Arundel, where he learned the game from his father. Golf has run through the Bush bloodlines for more than a century, and it was golf, not politics, that connected the generations. “The moments with my sons on the links are very special,” he said once. “Every moment with family out there is heaven.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.