Editor’s note: After 14 spirited and sometimes bizarre matches at Augusta National Golf Club, the final match of the first Presidents Golf Championship (PGC) will feature the tournament’s top two seeds, John F. Kennedy (1) and Dwight Eisenhower (2). Author of the bestselling book First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush (free drawing at right), Don Van Natta offers his commentary on the final match.
By Don Van Natta Jr.
Guest Golf Analyst
#1 JOHN F. KENNEDY VS. #2 DWIGHT EISENHOWER
A JFK-Ike match is a dream final, the ultimate test of the most bitter sports rivalry in presidential history. Like Yankees-Red Sox, Bears-Packers or Celtics-Knicks, it’s not enough for the PGC’s final combatants just to win. Each president wants to crush – no, humiliate – his opponent.
The bad blood between Kennedy and Eisenhower goes way back. JFK spent most of the ’50s ridiculing President Eisenhower’s love of golf. JFK was fond of calling Ike the nation’s “duffer-in-chief,” who spent more time trying to improve his golf score than trying to improve the lives of average Americans. Kennedy laughed out loud at the quip that Eisenhower had invented the 36-hole work week; it was literally true as Ike played 18 holes on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings at Burning Tree Country Club.
For his part, Eisenhower viewed Kennedy as a rich-boy hypocrite (Kennedy was a member of the Harvard golf team who loved the game as much as Ike). Ike believed JFK was too inexperienced to be president and too soft to beat him in a round of golf. Ike (as well as Nixon) did not appreciate the fact that JFK kept his love of golf hidden from the public; both men used to say that the White House press corps gave Kennedy a pass on golf because they were in love with him.
After Kennedy was sworn in as president, Ike visited him in Camp David, just a few short weeks after the Bay of Pigs debacle. Their visit was punctuated by long silences and frosty stares. Ike lectured Kennedy on the proper use of military might, a lecture that the younger man endured with silent fury. When it was over, Kennedy escorted Ike to a nearby heliport. Before Eisenhower departed, JFK suggested a golf game in the future. Ike agreed but after the former president had gone, JFK said he had no intention of ever playing golf with “that old asshole.”
But now, that long-postponed round will occur in the first Presidents Golf Championship.
Kennedy, who breezed to the final by easily beating Grant, Obama and Nixon, is the prohibitive favorite. Kennedy was never really tested, but Ike had to overcome a tougher road to get here, defeating Coolidge, Clinton and Ford. The smart money will be on JFK, but don’t underestimate the old general. Ike enjoys home-course advantage (Ike played more than 100 times at his home-course of Augusta National during his eight years in the White House), and he now knows just how to avoid the so-called Eisenhower Tree edging the 17th fairway (the lolly pine earned that nickname after Augusta’s elders rejected Ike’s official request to chop down the tree, which had bedeviled him for years).
The final, like most finals, will come down to putting. Kennedy owns the advantage but rumors are flying that Ike has been practicing around the clock these past few days.
Results of the final match will be published on Monday, January 19.
−The Armchair Golfer
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