What we know about John F. Kennedy, the golfer

John F. Kennedy
PGA Magazine, PGA of America
A rare golfing photograph taken in the late 1950's of President John F. Kennedy (fourth from left) with a group of friends.
By
Bob Denney, PGA of America

Series: PGA

Published: Friday, November 22, 2013 | 10:05 a.m.

We all wish that we could look as polished hitting a golf ball in loafers as John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The late president not only loved golf, he also was a proponent for speed of play, and deftly shielded his passion for the game from most of the media. Golf offered Kennedy solace, a few hours of peace with the great outdoors he cherished.

The late PGA President Max Elbin was among those who witnessed Kennedy's golf passion up close. Elbin served for more than 50 years as PGA head professional at Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Md., where he also was a coach for six U.S. Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

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According to Elbin’s son, Kelly, the PGA Director of Communications and Publications, "Dad said that Kennedy was, by far, the most athletic golfer among the many U.S. Presidents who played at Burning Tree Club. He said that Kennedy rarely played what would constitute a "round" of golf, but would typically jump from No. 1 green to No. 8 tee, then play through No. 10, then jump over to No. 13 and so forth."

Bobby Benson, 73, the PGA head professional at Palm Beach Country Club, first met Kennedy when he was a U.S. senator in 1959 during winters at the club. When Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States, Benson was at the practice range when Kenney asked for "suggestions" about his swing during a quick warm-up.

"The president wasn't much for lessons," says Benson, who estimated that the Kennedy presidential entourage at Palm Beach Country Club in those days involved nearly a dozen. Three cars carrying a Secret Service detail followed Kennedy's car, and the agents would scatter on golf carts for vantage points throughout the course.

"President Kennedy was courteous, not talkative with many of us, and he would walk the course," said Benson. "The driveway at that time allowed him to pull up, get his clubs out of the car and head directly to the first tee without any delay. When we got the call from Secret Service that the president was coming to the course, we had two holes cleared ahead of him."

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Among Kennedy's regular golf partners were press secretary Pierre Salinger, brother-in-law Peter Lawford, then-ABC News national affairs editor Bill Lawrence and senior military aide, Maj. Gen. Chester Clifton.

"Peter Lawford knew the club rule about wearing golf shoes," says Benson, "but he would only wear them on the first tee and take off his shoes once on the course."

An all-round athlete who played on Harvard University's golf team, Kennedy was described by many as a single-digit handicap golfer. Benson offered that JFK "was probably about a 14-15 handicap." Benson confirmed that Kennedy, if he would have spent the time, "would easily have carried a single-digit handicap. He hit the ball solidly, but his short game needed work."

Once Kennedy reached the ninth or 18th greens, depending upon the day, Benson said that he would often leave the course before his partners had finished the hole. "The president would jump into his car, not heading north back to the family home, but drive south to Palm Beach, often alone," says Benson. "The Secret Service scrambled to trail after him."

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Kennedy followed a golf-addicted president, Dwight Eisenhower, to the White House.

In 1960, we know of two trips when Kennedy visited Monterey, Calif., and famed Cypress Point Golf Club. In May of that year, then-Sen. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, celebrated his 43rd birthday but not before he played a round at the course. In July, just days before the Democratic National Convention opened in Los Angeles, Kennedy returned to Cypress Point.

Among his playing partners that day was future Undersecretary of the Navy, Paul B. Fay Jr. The group arrived at the signature par-3 16th hole, and Kennedy hit a 5-iron tee shot that made a laser-like path toward the flagstick. Fay began to yell, "Go in! Go In!"

Kennedy was a mask of terror, before letting out a deep breath when his ball hit the flagstick and came to rest six inches from the hole. Kennedy turned to Fay and said, "You're yelling for that damn ball to go in and I'm watching a promising political career coming to an end. If that ball had gone in, in less than an hour the word would be out that another golfer was trying to get in the White House."

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Bob Denney is the Senior Association Writer for The PGA of America, an avid historian and someone who watched presidential golf up close. He once caddied for President Gerald Ford, and convinced the Secret Service that he could easily keep up by walking not riding a golf cart.