On the Contrary: Bobby Jones Meets the President

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 1997

Last summer I had a supremely enjoyable day introducing my daughter to golf.

As I watched her skip down the fairway with a cut-off five iron in her hand, I wondered if she would learn to love the game the way I did from my father. He helped teach me the hard lesson that loving the game, like loving life itself, requires accepting its limitations, its measure—as it were—on us.

That’s how the game reveals the character of a man or woman.

The greatest golfer of them all, Bobby Jones of Atlanta, is still admired for calling penalty strokes on himself in major tournaments, for infractions no one else even noticed. He was tragically struck down in his prime by a debilitating and painful disease. But the character he demonstrated on the links served him well for the rest of his life. When asked if he regretted the disease that crippled him, Jones grinned as he answered, “Life is like golf: You have to play it where it lies.”

At summer’s end, I read an article in the American Spectator by Byron York on our president’s habit of ignoring the rules of golf.

When I learned about President Clinton’s veritable shower of second, third, and fourth shots —so many that the green gets littered with balls—it was apparent that the ancient game, once again, was providing an insight into human character.

Here is a man who considers himself, and his own enjoyment, more important than the rules, more important than the traditions laid down by those before him— traditions that make golf a constant challenge of self-mastery, and not another opportunity for self-inflation.

Of course, one has got to wonder how much genuine enjoyment there is in pretending to have saved par when you really shot a triple bogey. All the while this entire charade is carried out in front of men of real accomplishment—often with great golfers or world leaders of government and business.

What kind of man can find enjoyment in such pretense? What kind of man can be so oblivious to what others must be thinking?

If I were a novelist, I would conjure up a meeting, say, on the first tee at Augusta National between Bobby Jones, the club’s co-founder, and the president. There would be the usual mannerly greetings and fraternal kidding. As a matter of courtesy, the president would be asked to hit first.

Then the president would take his first swing and send it out far left or right of the fairway, only to reach back toward his caddy for another ball. One imagines a deep voice with a thick Georgia accent saying, firmly but politely, “Mr. President, I imagine we’ll be able to find that one.” Unable to get the message, the president would continue to hold out his hand toward his caddy.

The caddy, not knowing what to do, would look again at Jones. Bobby Jones, who had a smile that could outsparkle Cary Grant’s, would put his arm around the president’s shoulder, smile, and say, “Mr. President, this is a great golf course, and this is a great game, but you’ll never find out how great either is if you drop a new ball every time you hit a bad shot.”

It’s hard for a grown man to learn for the first time to play by the rules. He may, by the time he is fifty, find it impossible to enjoy himself under the conditions that honesty requires. He will feel stifled, his appetites frustrated.

Clinton often plays at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Manassas, Virginia. As reported in the American Spectator, club members are tired of his bad manners: “Caddyshack should have had a Bill Clinton character in it,” said one member.

There are times when we all dream of shortcuts to excellence. Millions of dollars are spent on gimmicks to lose weight, build muscle, achieve happiness, make money, and build lasting friendships. The easiest gimmick of all is just to pretend: If you didn’t make the putt for par, just putt it until you make it, or, if you can’t make it, just pretend you did.

Golf, like all great sports, is supposed to help us live well.

“Play it where it lies” is a lesson that has benefited me all my life. It means that life often provides opportunities that only come once—be ready. It means that I have to live with my mistakes—be responsible. It means that when I act every part of me must be involved—be committed. It means that no situation is perfect, no opportunity is without its difficulties—be courageous. It means that all we do, all we are, is shot through with limitations—be humble.

Let’s hope this presidential pretense is not the “bridge to the future” he promised. The future needs more the spirit of Bobby Jones and less the spirit of self-indulgent leadership.

If Bobby Jones put his arm over my shoulder, I’d listen closely to anything he happened to say.

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