NASSAU, Bahamas – It would be years after he left the White House before the world truly understood former President George H.W. Bush’s legacy as a statesman and consensus builder. Those in golf, however, always knew what “41” stood for.
“We went to visit him at his home in Kennebunkport [Maine] and he made it all about Amy [Mickelson] and Robin [Love] and not Davis and Phil,” Davis Love III explained. “He would meet people and bring them into his family, it didn’t matter who you were, Phil Mickelson, [Soviet General Secretary Mikhail] Gorbachev or the volunteer at a tournament.”
Bush, who died late Friday night at 94, was many things to many people, but for those within golf who were fortunate to have crossed paths with the former Commander in Chief, he was the living embodiment of everything that makes the game so special.
Bush’s history with the game went back decades to his grandfather, George Herbert Walker, who served as president of the USGA in 1920 and is credited with creating what is now the Walker Cup; but it wasn’t until he left the White House in 1992 that the true extent of his passion for the game was understood.
He served as honorary chairman of the Presidents Cup in 1996 and was a fixture in American team rooms in both the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.
“When he would come and speak to the team like he did [at the 2012 Ryder Cup] it was like one of our friends was coming to speak with us,” said Love, who was captain of the ’12 U.S. team. “It was like your grandpa is there. He just lights up the room.”
Bush’s exploits on the course were legendary, with the president earning a reputation as a fierce competitor and an even more endearing friend. And he played fast. He played so fast.
“It was one of those very quick ones, 18 holes in probably under 2 1/2 hours,” said Tiger Woods of his round with Bush in Houston shortly after he turned pro. “It was basically club, ball, one look, gone.”
Bush was a regular at the Houston-area PGA Tour stop for years, and until he was slowed by a form of Parkinson's disease he would regularly seek out games with heads of state, pro golfers and pretty much anyone who wanted to play.
“He's more than just an avid golf fan, he's beyond that,” said Patrick Reed, a Houston resident. “He absolutely loved the game.”
Trips to play golf with Bush at his home in Kennebunkport were unique events, with the president organizing elaborate competitions that went from the golf course to horseshoes to his boat for fishing.
“There was always a competition. He and the then-governors [Bush’s sons George W. and Jeb] were ranked. You’d have to start the competition unranked,” Love laughed. “Every time he’d throw he’d say, ‘I dedicate this shoe to the lovely Barbara Bush.’”
But it was how Bush used golf as a tool to teach respect and honesty and how he was able to influence so many people via the game that made him such an important figure in the history of golf.
After politics, Bush and his wife raised more than $1 billion for charity, much of that coming in his role as honorary chairman of The First Tee from 1997-2011.
“As a role model to us he meant so much more than golf,” said Love, who placed a letter he received from Bush in his locker at the World Golf Hall of Fame. “For the game, his family committed to The First Tee, doing whatever [former PGA Tour commissioner Tim] Finchem asked him to do he did, just playing the game exposed it to so many people.”
Players honored Bush on Saturday at the Hero World Challenge by writing “41” (he was the 41st president of the United States) on their hats and following his round Woods echoed a theme long held by the golf world.
“Obviously his name is synonymous with golf,” Woods said. “Anyone who's ever been around him knows how much he loved his golf and how much he supported it and how much we're going to miss him.”
Bush’s legacy as the game’s preeminent statesman will be understandably overlooked in the next few days as the country reflects on the man who served so many roles for the nation, but those of us within the game should also take a moment and appreciate what he accomplished in our small slice of the universe.
In 2011, the president was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and the opening line of his biography summed up life in perfect brevity: “From his birth, it was obvious that George H.W. Bush was destined to be deeply involved in two things: politics and golf.”
It took time for the nation to fully understand how inspired and meaningful Bush’s life was, but those in golf never needed to be told what he meant to the game.