For years, President Obama told John Yarmuth, a congressman from Kentucky, that they needed to get together for a round of golf — a nearly weekly activity of the president’s, but one that hardly ever includes lawmakers. When Obama raised the idea yet again during a reception at the start of his second term, Yarmuth teased him: “I know, you keep saying that.”
Finally, in mid-July, Yarmuth and two other golf-crazed House Democrats joined the president for what Yarmuth later described as a “normal Sunday game with friends.”
“Except,” he clarified, “for the Secret Service in the woods and the fact that our water and Gatorade would be replenished magically whenever we went to the putting green.”
That outing offered Reps. Yarmuth, Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Joe Courtney of Connecticut entree into an exclusive caucus. It was just the fifth round Obama played with members of Congress, out of 247 golf outings since he took office, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, the unofficial statistician of the White House press corps.
While some politicians use golf as a way to mix business and pleasure, Obama is known to prefer his time on the links to be an escape. After arriving on Martha’s Vineyard this month for vacation, the president golfed with NBA stars including Steph Curry and Ray Allen, comedian Larry David and former President Clinton. More often, the president’s foursomes include White House aides or longtime friends.
Even in those few instances he has golfed with lawmakers, they mostly ignored politics, the congressmen said in interviews. When asked whether Obama used the time on the course to lobby the Democrats on his trade bill, for example, or the Iran nuclear agreement, Yarmuth said no.
“It didn’t have anything to do with anything,” he said, and added that Obama took the time to make himself clear on that point.
“As we were saying goodbye, he said, ‘Now I want you all to acknowledge that I did not lobby you on anything. I wanted this just to be about golf,’” Yarmuth recalled.
“But,” Obama promised, “I will be calling.”
The first member of Congress to play with the president, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), said his two outings with Obama — both on Martha’s Vineyard, in 2009 and 2010 — were also largely free of shop talk.
Obama’s other golf outings with lawmakers were at least gestures toward collaboration. In 2011, after Republicans had won control of the House the previous fall, Obama invited the new House speaker, John A. Boehner, to join him for a round with Vice President Joe Biden. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, invited Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich to make it a truly bipartisan pair.
In 2013, when Obama was undertaking a “charm offensive” with congressional Republicans at the start of his second term, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) were invited to golf with him. The round included a hole-in-one by Chambliss but was cut short because of a vote on Capitol Hill.
Corker hasn’t played with Obama since.
Would Obama benefit from golfing with lawmakers more often?
“That’s his decision,” Corker said.
“It’s beneficial any time you can establish a relationship with anyone,” Corker, now the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said recently. “In a business like this, public service, where understanding is important, I would say that certainly spending as much time as you can, especially with people who may come at things from a different point of view, can be a good thing.”
In the case of Boehner, it seems the reluctance is on the part of the Republican. He told the Golf Channel in a recent interview that Obama asked whether he would get in trouble if they played together again.
“I have to look at him and say, ‘Yes, because everybody gets bent out of shape worried about what we are up to, when all we are really going to do is just play golf,’” he told the network.
Clyburn acknowledged the president has been criticized for not doing more to build relationships with lawmakers. He said the game has been a key factor for Clyburn himself in working with Republicans — and he credits a relationship he struck with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) over golf with helping to pass a bill of his that had long been stalled in the Senate.
“Those 4 1/2 hours that you’re out there, almost in isolation, provides you an opportunity to bond in a way that you wouldn’t bond otherwise,” he said.
“Golf is the biggest contributor to my bipartisanship.”
Clyburn, a longtime player who first learned to play on football and baseball fields in his home state because many golf courses were off-limits to African Americans, said he can tell a lot about a person by how he or she plays the game.
“He’s now saying that he is fearless,” he said of the president, who has recently shown a newfound boldness in governing. “I knew a long time ago that he was fearless by the way he played golf.”
Yarmuth, one of the more accomplished golfers in the House and captain of the Democratic team in the congressional equivalent of a Ryder Cup tournament, said the president was “a delight to play with” but classified him only as a “decent golfer.”
“He’ll get better when he leaves the presidency,” he said.
Clyburn noted that Obama took up the game just as he was taking office.
In their July game, Yarmuth and Perlmutter ended up besting the team of Obama and Courtney in a small bet. Courtney quickly settled with Perlmutter, but Yarmuth recalled that Obama went to greet servicemen at the Andrews Air Force Base course without settling his $3 debt with him.
Two days later, though, a note arrived from the White House.
“John, had a great time,” Obama wrote. “And I always pay my golf debts. Barack.”
Yarmuth is having the note, and the three wrinkled dollar bills delivered with it, framed.