Presidential Pastime

The USGA has played a key role in the construction and maintenance of the White House putting green

By Michael Trostel, USGA
February 16, 2013

In 1954, the USGA's Al Radko oversaw the construction of the White House putting green for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Courtesy of White House/Pete Souza)

At work, golfers often find themselves looking longingly out the window, dreaming of a quick getaway to play nine holes or get in some short-game practice.

Whether your workplace is a city skyscraper, a small shop or the Oval Office, the golf itch does not discriminate among job titles.

However, there are certain occupations that permit the scratching of that itch more readily than others. The President of the United States is one of them, thanks to a putting green just 50 paces from the Oval Office.

In the spring of 1954, at the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Al Radko of the USGA Green Section oversaw the construction of the 3,000-square-foot putting surface on the South Lawn. With assistance from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Golf Course Superintendents and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, construction was completed in a few weeks.

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Eisenhower conveyed his thanks 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.”

After picking up the game in 1925 as a way to relieve stress at his wife’s encouragement, Eisenhower turned the game into his passion, playing more than 800 rounds during his presidency, from 1953 to 1961. 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.

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.

“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.”

Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was astonished to find many spike marks in the floor of the Oval Office, leading from the desk to the double doors that opened to the green.

An influential ambassador who helped popularize the game during his term, Palmer counted Arnold Palmer among his close friends. He even made a surprise visit to Palmer’s home to help him celebrate his 37th birthday. (Click here for video of Palmer recounting his friendship with Eisenhower.)

Eisenhower’s White House legacy has endured after overcoming an interruption in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon removed the putting surface. At the 1994 Presidents Cup, Bill Clinton approached USGA President Reg Murphy and golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. about restoring the green. Once again, the USGA played a role. Stanley Zontek, director of the USGA Green Section Mid-Atlantic region until his passing in August 2012, helped in the construction then made regular visits to the White House to help with its maintenance.

While none of his successors displayed as much passion for the game as Ike did, the game has been a thread that has run through nearly every president since Eisenhower. (Only Jimmy Carter didn’t play.) The presidents’ collective interest in the game has shown that golf has been able to transcend divisions in policy and politics to unite our nation’s leaders.

Over the years, the White House putting green has been a symbol of not only this bond, but also of the game’s timeless appeal – from the President on down.

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