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How Arnold Palmer and President Eisenhower Made Golf the Post-War Pastime

The charismatic, working-class golfer and beloved president made golf the sport of elites and middle-class duffers for a generation

Dwight Eisenhower and Arnold Palmer smile before a round of golf at the Gettysburg Country Club in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1960. (Paul Vathis, The Associated Press)
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Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer died at the age of 87 on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of complications from heart problems. He’s a considered a legend on and off the fairway for many reasons. He won the Masters Tournament four times, the British Open twice and the U.S. Open once (but did so in spectacular fashion, with an incredible comeback at Cherry Hills in 1960). He was a lifelong philanthropist, golf-course designer and advertising pitchman. He even has a ubiquitous non-alcoholic soft drink named after him, the refreshing blend of ice tea and lemonade, an official licensed version of which is sold by Arizona Beverage Company.

One of his greatest contributions to American culture, however, was his friendship with the golf-obsessed President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president’s fondness for the sport and Palmer’s telegenic, dramatic golfing style in the early TV era helped popularize the links in the 1950s and '60s, making it the de facto suburban pastime for the last half of the 20th century and a necessary skill for any up-and-coming business professional.

According to The Atlantic, 17 American presidents have golfed while in office, beginning with William McKinley in 1897. Only Teddy Roosevelt, Hoover, Truman and Carter avoided the links. While McKinley kept his golfing secret, the first openly golf-obsessed president was William Howard Taft, though his skills were not necessarily up to par. He once took 12 strokes to free himself from a sand trap, though he was a scrupulously honest and insisted on recording every errant strike.

Eisenhower, though, was the first to bring the game to the White House itself. According to Dave Shedloski at the golf magazine Kingdom, less than a month after taking office in 1953, Eisenhower began practicing chip shots on the South Lawn and eventually commissioned a 3,000-square-foot putting green just outside the Oval Office. Supposedly, the hardwood floors of the office still bear marks from his golf spikes.

Palmer first met Eisenhower in 1958 at an event at Laurel Valley Golf Club near Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The two began playing together regularly after Palmer won the U.S. Open in 1960. From there, they formed a true bond, though Palmer was Ike’s junior by 39 years.   

“After that first encounter at Augusta in 1960, our meetings on the golf course became more frequent and our playing companionship deepened into a genuine friendship that, for me at least, eclipsed any relationship I’d ever had with an older man besides my father,” Palmer writes in his biography A Golfer’s Life“He loved to hear me talk about tour life, and I loved to hear him reminisce about his wartime experiences and reflect on current events.”

In fact, the two men and their families spent lots of time together before Ike’s death in 1969, with Palmer visiting the Eisenhower home in Palm Springs and the Eisenhowers spending weekends at the Palmer’s in Latrobe.

For the popularity of golf, there could not have been a better combination. Steve DeMeglio at USA Today reports that Palmer’s pigeon-toed, almost ugly golf stance and aggressive approach to the game was compelling for early television audience. His go-for-broke style made the once upper-class sport appealing to a mass audience of post-war Americans with more free-time and more disposable cash.

“Arnold meant everything to golf. Are you kidding me?” Tiger Woods tells DeMeglio. “I mean, without his charisma, without his personality in conjunction with TV — it was just the perfect symbiotic growth. You finally had someone who had this charisma, and they’re capturing it on TV for the very first time. Everyone got hooked to the game of golf via TV because of Arnold.”

Bob Hope, Palmer’s long time friend put it more succinctly: “There are two things that made golf appealing to the average man—Arnold Palmer and the invention of the mulligan.”

Victoria Student, writing for the U.S. Golf Association, writes that Eisenhower was also an influential golf ambassador and that the number of golfers in the United States doubled during his two terms as president. Eisenhower played over 800 rounds of golf while in office, roughly 100 rounds per year, taking the public’s business onto the golf course as well as old friends and celebrities. The media was both critical and smitten with the president's love of the sport, taking plenty of photos of Eisenhower swinging his clubs next to Hope and notables like General Omar Bradley. Student reports that the July 1953 issue of Golf Digest, which came out just half a year after Ike took the oath of office, stated that Washington, D.C., was “seized with golfing fever like never before in history.” 

It wasn’t just a coincidence. Eisenhower was an active booster of his favorite sport, and in a message to the PGA Tournament in 1953, he wrote, “[Golf] obviously provides one of our best forms of healthful exercise, accompanied by good fellowship and companionship. It is a sport in which the whole American family can participate--fathers and mothers, sons and daughters alike. It offers healthy respite from daily toil, refreshment of body and mind.”

Eisenhower thought that Palmer could have a positive influence on the nation as well, and pushed the younger man to embody American values and morals. “The old general who had sent men who were barely more than boys onto Normandy’s beaches in defense of liberty was determined to make me aware of the valuable service I could perform as a role model to thousands of young people,” Palmer wrote in his autobiography. “In a tumultuous period of time that would soon begin to devalue such traditional notions, President Eisenhower believed fervently in the power of heroes to transform lives—and he spared no opportunity to remind me that I had the rare opportunity to be such a hero.”

While Palmer, universally loved for his generosity and everyman democratic spirit, did try to set a positive example, he had a limit. Fred Barbash at The Washington Post reports that even though fans held up signs reading “Arnie for President” at almost all of his tournaments, the Eisenhower Republican declined to ever run for office, even when a group wanted to nominate him for governor of Pennsylvania. He cited his father’s maxim, “That a smart man learned early what he did best and kept on doing it.”

Palmer and Eisenhower are still highly respected, but the halo they put on golf is fading fast. According to The Wall Street Journal, participation rates have fallen steadily since 2005, and 90 percent of people who try golf once don’t become regular players. There are many factors—golf is expensive, courses have become much more difficult for beginners and the slow pace of the game doesn’t fit in with a busier population. (Not to mention, President Obama has only played 300 rounds of golf while in office, 500 fewer than Eisenhower.)

arnold palmer
The "king" of golf. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the family of Paul C. Burns)

Arnold Palmer's portrait by Paul C Burns is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery's In Memoriam wall.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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