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Hail to the chief golfer: Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson photo illustration
Woodrow Wilson didn’t pick up golf until he was 56, and then only upon the advice of his physician, but the nation’s 28th president was known to play daily, if not all that well.

On Election Day, Americans can celebrate the 28th president, who took his doctor’s advice to head outside and exercise by taking up golf at age 56, ultimately making the game a daily ritual and playing more rounds than any occupant of the Oval Office

It’s Election Day in the U.S., and regardless of who wins the presidential bout, there will be a golfer in the Oval Office. President Donald Trump’s affinity for the game is no national secret, but Democratic nominee Joe Biden also is a golfer, and apparently a pretty good one, though he didn’t start playing the game until 20 years ago, at age 57.

Golf imposes a steep learning curve for someone taking up the game in his late 50s, but the president who played the most golf of anyone to hold the office didn’t start playing the game until after he was in office, at age 56. That was our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson. It wasn’t that Wilson suddenly had a desire to play golf, a game that still was relatively new to the U.S. in the early 20th century. He was advised to play by the White House physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, a Navy doctor.

Grayson and Wilson had not known each other before Wilson’s inauguration in 1913, but Grayson had served previous presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft as physician on board the presidential yacht Mayflower, a 275-foot steam-powered luxury vessel.

When he first met Wilson, Grayson recognized that the new president was not in the best of health, and suggested that Wilson spend time outdoors in the fresh air and walk daily. Grayson was not a golfer, but he instructed Wilson to take up the game as a tonic. Wilson put his faith in Grayson, who had successfully tended to Wilson’s sister when she incurred a cut. Wilson took up the game.

Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856 but spent his youth in Augusta, Ga., decades before it would become a winter golfing mecca. He went to Davidson College in North Carolina, studied law at the University of Virginia, got a degree from Princeton and then a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. Though he was an excellent student, Wilson also played football and baseball, and rode horseback.

Wilson became a professor after a brief period as an attorney in Atlanta, teaching at several colleges before accepting a position at Princeton and eventually becoming president of the Ivy League university. He wrote several well-regarded books on politics and government. In 1910, running as a Democrat, he won the race for governor of New Jersey, with a margin of victory of 65,000 votes, while Taft carried New Jersey in the presidential contest by a margin of 82,000 votes. Two years later, Wilson would defeat Taft and Roosevelt for president.

Grayson was on target with his assessment of Wilson’s health. In 1906, Wilson awoke unable to see out of his left eye. He’d had a retinal hemorrhage and, though he recovered some sight in the damaged eye, he’d lost peripheral vision. As a young man, Wilson had weakness or fatigue of the eyes and dimming of vision. This event probably was a small stroke.

Wilson also suffered from headaches, high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.

Dr. Cary T. Grayson
Dr. Cary T. Grayson, the White House physician during the Woodrow Wilson Administration, also served as the main golf companion for the 28th president.

So, when Grayson suggested golf, Wilson went forward with the game. Initially, golf proved to be like a bitter pill for Wilson, something prescribed against his will. As soon as he took up the game, others wanted to join him. In spite of his austere look, formal attire and a pair of pince-nez glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, Wilson was a friendly man and enjoyed the company of individuals whom he knew. However, he soon found that as president, people wanted to play golf with him to catch his ear on matters of state or politics, and he quickly limited his golf to rounds with his physician, Grayson. 

They soon developed a daily routine. Wilson would have breakfast at 8 o’clock, and then he and Grayson would head to a nearby golf course – usually Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., or Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington, Va. – for nine holes during the week and 18 holes on Saturday, but never on Sunday. Wilson came from a line of Presbyterian ministers and never missed Sunday services.

Those rounds were played regardless of weather. Wilson played golf in the rain and cold. He even instructed the Secret Service to paint golf balls red so that he could play in the snow without losing his ball. Wilson and Grayson usually were followed by Joseph Murphy, the president’s personal bodyguard and head of the Secret Service, while two other Secret Service men stayed at the clubhouse.

For all the rounds that Wilson played, he never became a good golfer. His score was said to be around 115 for 18 holes, and Grayson recorded a similar total. They had good games against each other, and both were serious about winning the match.

They never hung around the clubhouse after golf. Wilson didn’t drink alcoholic beverages or even coffee, nor did he smoke or play cards, other than solitaire. After golf, he returned to the White House for his presidential duties.

Although he had other patients, Grayson lived at the White House and knew his No. 1 patient well. Wilson was a focused worker and liked to work at one thing at a time. He threw himself into matters of state and gave everything careful consideration. Grayson knew no one could keep working that way, and golf provided a needed break.

But Wilson’s ways followed him to the golf course. “Each stroke requires your whole attention and seems the most important thing in life,” Wilson said about his game. It took him away from his work, but his intense focus just shifted to golf. At least each round ended with a win, loss or draw without national or international consequences.

In late December 1913, Grayson diagnosed Wilson with a terrible cold and recommended a trip to a warmer climate. Pass Christian, Miss., located on the Gulf of Mexico near Biloxi, was the destination, and Wilson rented a house known as Beaulieu instead of going to a hotel or resort. He wanted to rest without having to deal with those outside of his family and Grayson.

Wilson got plenty of rest, with no presidential business, but he played golf every day, except for Christmas and Sundays, at nearby Mississippi Coast Country Club, a nine-hole course known today as the 18-hole Great Southern Golf Club. The promised warm weather didn’t hold for the trip. Some days, the temperature was in the 40s, but Wilson played golf anyway. All requests to meet with groups in the area were politely declined until the day before the president’s scheduled departure, when a crowd of 6,000, including a former Confederate general in full uniform and a former slave who had been Jefferson Davis’ man servant, gathered in front of Beaulieu to wish Wilson farewell.

On the golf course, Wilson was described as not Wilson the president, or Wilson the college professor, but just plain old “Mr. Wilson” who came to play golf. He asked for no special favors and reasoned that all club rules applied equally to him as they did to others. Other than Grayson, few others knew Wilson as a golfer. One who did: Donald Ball, a transplanted Englishman who was the golf professional at Washington Golf Club in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac.

“Wilson was just a good fellow when he came on the links,” Ball said. “He forgot all about his office duties and just came out to enjoy himself. He and his friend and physician, Doctor Grayson, always came together, and they had some hot games, I’ll tell you. Both of them shot the course somewhere around 90. There was nothing snobbish about Wilson. He was just the same as you or I. He was always jolly. When he sliced his ball into the rough, he took it all as part of the game and never complained.

“He would always ask where his friend, Donald, was if he didn’t see me when he started out. That’s the kind of man he was. If he’d see me giving a lesson down on the course, he’d always wave before he went on…. Both [Grayson] and Wilson dressed like you and I. They were hardly noticed on the links, so quiet were they. Everybody got excited when they recognized the president. They wanted to put up the flag every time he came on the course, but I told them that was just what the president didn’t want. Somebody would come up to me all excited and say, ‘There comes the president.’ I’d tell them, ‘Let him come. There’s lots of room for him.’ ”

Because Grayson and Wilson always played as a twosome, there are not a lot of stories about the 28th president on the golf course. Unlike Wilson’s predecessor, William Howard Taft, who talked a lot about golf and was heavyset and wore a large handlebar mustache that the cartoonists loved, the press didn’t focus much on Wilson and his golf. They viewed it as part of a health regimen prescribed by his doctor.

But the unseen caddies were there, and they always have the best unfiltered analysis. Most caddies said Wilson played a good or fair game of golf, scoring in the 100s for 18 holes, and that’s probably an accurate analysis of the average player’s game at the time. But they noted that a good drive for Wilson was 120 yards and that his putting was horrible. Wilson’s poor putting probably was due in part to his poor eyesight. It was reported that Wilson took 15 putts on one hole. Because of his lack of peripheral vision in his left eye, Wilson complained that he couldn’t see the putter head when he started his stroke.

One caddie reported that after Wilson had flubbed a shot and was left a mashie iron – roughly equivalent to today’s 5-iron – to the hole, Wilson instead took his 3-wood, caught the ball squarely and it flew over the green. Instead of being upset that he’d left himself in a poor position, Wilson was delighted that he’d hit the ball so well.

Wilson was considered a “good loop” by caddies. He treated them with courtesy and didn’t complain about their services. And caddying for the president carried a special honor. Caddies noted, however, that he paid only the going caddie rate: 25-35 cents for 18 holes. No big tips.

In August 1914, Wilson’s wife, Ellen, died from Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. Wilson was devastated, and golf stopped for a while, but by the fall, the president was back on his routine.

In March 1915, Wilson and Grayson returned to the White House from a round of golf in inclement weather, their shoes and clothing wet and covered in mud. They were met by Wilson’s cousin Helen Bones, who was acting as substitute first lady at the White House, and her friend Edith Galt, a widow. Wilson and Grayson got cleaned up and had tea with the women. For Wilson, it was love at first sight. He was smitten with Galt.

During their courtship, Wilson played golf with Galt and Grayson. She played about the same as Wilson and Grayson, although some considered her to be better than either man.

Wilson and Galt were married a week before Christmas, and the couple honeymooned at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., where they played golf on the resort’s course, newly redesigned by Donald Ross.

In 1916, Wilson faced Charles Evans Hughes in the presidential election. On the day after the election, Wilson and Grayson were on the golf course when news was rushed to the president that he had carried California and his re-election was assured. Wilson gave a smile, and continued with his golf.

World War I had started in 1914, but the U.S. remained neutral. In 1915, the British ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine, with 128 Americans among the 1,198 dead. Neither Wilson nor the population in general wanted to get involved with a widening European war, but with Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, America was pushed closer to conflict. An intercepted telegram from Germany to Mexico promising Mexico parts of the southwestern U.S. if Mexico would declare war on the United States proved to be the tipping point.

On April 2, 1917, the president and his wife went to Kirkside Golf Club in Chevy Chase, Md., for a round at the nine-hole course. That evening, Wilson sent a message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany “to make the world safe for democracy.”

On April 6, Wilson signed the declaration of war, and then headed to the golf course. Pressures mounted on the president as an army was raised and military preparations moved into high gear. Wilson promoted golf at military bases and, as one newspaper put it, “President Wilson let it be known that men should not neglect physical exercise and set the example by playing golf every day.”

After the Allied victory in 1918, Wilson headed for peace talks in France at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, where he advocated for a “just peace” and the establishment of the League of Nations. Wilson was pressured on all fronts, but managed a few rounds of golf as quietly and discreetly as possible.

In 1919, Wilson was urging Congress to approve the League of Nations, but he was being stymied by the Republican-controlled Senate. Wilson went on a nationwide railroad trip to gain public approval for the league, but the trip was halted in late September by Grayson, who was concerned about the president’s failing health.

Wilson returned to Washington, where on Oct. 2 he suffered a major stroke from which he never fully recovered. His wife and Grayson kept officials and the press away from the president and effectively ran the government until the end of his term, in early 1921. He died three years later, at age 67.

While he was president, Wilson played more than 1,200 rounds of golf; some historians place the number as high as 1,600. After his stroke, Wilson no longer could play golf, but he left a legacy that golf was a good diversion, no matter how busy or dedicated to work one might be.

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