Exclusive: Caddying for a president

President Ford
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids
Joe Garagiola (wearing plaid pants at center) clowns with a Secret Service agent as 67-year-old former President Gerald Ford attempts to sink a short putt in the Amana VIP tournament. June 22, 1981. (Republished with permission ©2014 Iowa SourceMedia Group, Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
Bob Denney/PGA of America

Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Friday, February 14, 2014 | 9:23 a.m.

Four years removed from serving as the 38th president of the United States, a term that was one of the most turbulent periods in American history, Gerald R. Ford greeted me near a clubhouse door.

“Are you my caddie today?”

They say you learn a lot about a person when you spend a few hours playing golf with him. You learn perhaps more as a caddie. My short course with the man who pulled a country through post-Watergate and post-Vietnam healing came on June 22, 1981.

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Ford made his third and final visit to the former Amana VIP Pro-Am in Iowa City, Iowa, arriving at the University of Iowa’s Finkbine Golf Course with a seven-cart detail of Secret Service. He had warmed up 48 hours earlier with what he said was “a pretty good round” at the Vince Lombardi Memorial Classic in Menomonee Falls, Wis. I became one of the members of the “detail,” provided that I kept my pin secure on a badge pinned to my caddie bib.

On this day, Ford hit the practice range briefly before facing a gallery of 20,000 at the “Masters of the Pro-Ams.” The 15th annual VIP field spanned the sports and entertainment industry, featuring Tom Watson, Hubert Green, Fuzzy Zoeller, George “Goober” Lindsey, St. Louis Cardinal slugger Stan Musial, Joe Garagiola; former Milwaukee Bucks Coach Don Nelson and college basketball coaching giants Bob Knight, then of Indiana, and Lute Olson, then of the University of Iowa.

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Our group included LPGA Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner and NBC Sports announcer Joe Garagiola. Presidential aide Lee Simmons of Palm Springs, Calif., who met Ford at the White House while in the Air Force, drove the former president in a cart. I trudged behind, stubborn to prove to the Secret Service that I could keep up.

My Boss for the day carried a 12 handicap at home in Palm Springs, and despite those well-publicized reports of his wayward drives bopping spectators, Ford’s game was well within the ropes this day. He posted a 90, but he displayed enough game to prove that he was a far better golfer.

The president’s scrambling talent was showcased on the 15th hole, a par-5 that rose up a valley to an elevated green. Ford shanked a wedge approach and was faced with an almost impossible recovery from a grassy ravine. A Secret Service agent stood nearby and whispered, “Watch this; just watch this.”

Ford lofted his approach over a clump of trees, on to the green and within 25 feet of the hole. As the gallery applauded enthusiastically, the same agent said, “He does a lot of that stuff.”

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On one of the longest holes at Finkbine, Ford asked me for club selection. “Everything you have in the bag, Mr. President.” He swung smooth and hard, and smiled, “That felt good, Bob.”

Ford’s concentration was broken at the right time for laughs with Garagiola, a left-hander who had played numerous rounds with the former president. “You folks should have been behind us in 1976, and then I could’ve been named the Italian ambassador to the Vatican,” Garagiola declared to the gallery. “Instead, you voted for Carter.”

Just as Garagiola lined up a putt, a woman yelled back, “I didn’t vote for Carter!”

“Thatta girl,” Garagiola said without looking up.

The Boss also smartly flew an approach over a television truck parked along the 18th fairway and out of trouble. The same Secret Service agent grinned. “I have a variety of teaching pros telling me what to do,” said Ford during the special moments when it was just me and him walking to a green. “I think that is the problem sometimes. I just come over the top on a lot of shots. Just need to swing smoother.”

Earlier in the round, Garagiola hit a tee shot and then sprinted up and put his arm around me as we walked. “Well caddie, what do you think of the Boss?”

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“He’s one of the most gracious guys you ever want to meet. He also plays a good game despite the distractions.” Garagiola concurred, and then went into a story about a past round with Ford. He recalled a female reporter ducked under the gallery ropes and began walking with the group.

“I told her as nice as I could, ‘you can’t be out here, you have to take care of that (an interview) before or after golf,’ ” said Garagiola. “The next day she writes a column ripping Mr. Ford for snubbing her.”

We celebrate another Presidents Day and some of us are fortunate to have literally rubbed shoulders with the Commander in Chief of our country. President Gerald R. Ford is the least appreciated of all our modern presidents, and I always felt he deserved better. His 1979 autobiography, “A Time to Heal,” convinced me.

As Ford finished the last round of golf that he would play in Iowa, he was greeted by a mass of officials in a crowded, tiny clubhouse. I was busy putting his golf bag into a waiting open trunk.

“The man wants to see you right now,” said a Secret Service agent. Sprinting back to the clubhouse, I arrived just in time to hear my name called twice, and as loud and clear like my dad used to call me from the back door before dinner.

“Here I am, Mr. President.” Ford greeted me with a big handshake and smile, thanking me for the afternoon’s work. The media eagerly awaited post-game remarks and the security cordon quickly formed around me and the Boss. Together, we were escorted, shoulder-to-shoulder, out the clubhouse door.

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Bob Denney/PGA of America