CAPITAL CULTURE: Speaker’s golf game close to par

For House Speaker John Boehner, breaking par can be as elusive
as breaking the spiraling federal debt.

But a few hours roaming 18 holes at the country club can be a
welcome diversion from the daily grind in the nation’s capital. In
some cases, the leader in the clubhouse might very well be the
leader of the House, the 61-year-old Ohio Republican with the
cringe-inducing hitch in his swing.

”If you play with him, you can’t watch him swing,” said
Cincinnati businessman Jerry Vanden Eynden, a lifelong friend.
”You’ve got to turn your back. I keep telling him, `You play so
damn much, you ought to get good.”’

Boehner does indeed play a lot, and he is good. Golf Digest, in
its June issue, ranks him as the ninth best golfer in Congress and
43rd among all Washingtonians connected to the political scene. His
handicap is estimated at 7.9 – good enough to be the envy of
duffers everywhere – although that represents some slippage from
2005, when he boasted to the magazine that he played some 100
rounds per year.

”It’s a way for him to unwind and relax, get away from the
pressure,” said his brother, Bob Boehner. ”I’m sure there’s got
to be a tremendous amount of pressure in that job.”

Ever since Boehner’s ascent to the Speaker’s chair four months
ago, there’s been talk of the ultimate bipartisan round with
President Barack Obama, who loves to play but is more of a hacker –
108th in Golf Digest’s rankings. Then-presidential spokesman Robert
Gibbs said in January that he could see it happening but it ”might
require the president to practice a bit.” However, much like a
round of budget negotiations, momentum for an Obama-Boehner pairing
appears to have stalled.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel says the speaker hasn’t played
as much as he’d like in recent months because of the increased
demands of the job, but even a round or two can be fodder for
critics. There was no mistaking the sarcasm when the Senate
Democrats’ Twitter feed asked ”What did you shoot yesterday?”
after Boehner played a course in Sarasota, Fla., in February while
intense negotiations continued in Washington to avert a federal
government shutdown.

It was a role reversal of sorts from 1995, when Boehner
criticized then-President Bill Clinton over a golf outing as a
government shutdown loomed. ”Now is the time, not to play golf as
the president did yesterday, now is the time to act,” Boehner said
back then.

Boehner declined to be interviewed about his golfing hobby.
Asked to justify the February round of golf in light of the 1995
remarks, Steel answered: ”Our goal is to cut government spending,
not to shut the government down.” Steel noted that at the time,
the House had passed a bill and the Democratic-controlled Senate
had not, adding ”that has nothing to do with how the Speaker
spends his time.”

Boehner wasn’t raised a golfer. Basketball and football, which
he played under former Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust at Cincinnati’s
Moeller High School, were the sports linchpins of his modest
upbringing in southwest Ohio. Friends and coaches said he was
always competitive, if a bit unorthodox. In softball, for example,
he would throw right-handed and bat left-handed.

”He was aggressive,” Vanden Eynden said. ”We came from a very
blue-collar town. In Moeller, back where we went, most of the
rougher kids came from our neighborhood. We played what we would
call the `free sports.’ You just showed up down at the park and you
played whatever season it was, baseball, softball. John was a real
good softball player. He was pretty good in everything but golf. I
keep telling people the only thing he knew about golf back then was
how to caddie.”

Boehner didn’t take up golf until he was in his 30s and working
for a plastics company. When the owner died, he left Boehner a set
of clubs. He’s never been picture-pretty: He originally played
left-handed and still putts that way, but now he swings from the
other side – a politician who works both the right and the left, at
least in a golfing sense.

”He attacked the golf course like he does everything else,”
Bob Boehner said. ”He worked hard to get better at the game
because he didn’t want to embarrass himself. In the business world,
on the golf course, that’s where they get things done. You can’t
hide behind a good golf game. Either you’re good at it or you’re
not.”

In politics, though, a prolific golf game can have its
drawbacks. In 2010, a commercial produced during his House race in
Ohio mocked Boehner’s love of the sport with a barrage of
statistics and concluded: ”For those who want an out of touch
golfer for a congressman, there’s John Boehner.” There was also a
billboard posted along an interstate that asked: ”When was the
last time you golfed 119 times in one year?” Boehner, who has
played some of the most exclusive courses in the country, has also
been chided for his membership at Burning Tree, an all-male golf
club in Maryland.

”They all pick on him about playing so much golf, but that’s
part of his job,” Vanden Eynden said. ”If you’re going to go out
and try to raise the money that he’s raising, you don’t take them
to the local (municipal) courses. Most of those guys with money,
they’re not going to go down to the local muni course and play.
They’re going to want to go somewhere nice; they’re used to
that.

”Boehner’s not the first one to start this and probably won’t
be the last. I don’t care what party you’re in; that’s where you’re
going to get the business done,” Vanden Eynden said.

Depending on his company, Boehner uses golf both as an extension
of the office and as a means to get away from the stress of it.
Next week, he’ll host the 28th annual ”Boehner Birdie Hunt” at
Wetherington Country Club near Cincinnati.

”Boehner often says that on the golf course, you can’t hide who
you really are,” Steel said. ”It really gives you a chance to get
to know someone. And that’s crucial in business and politics.”

Boehner may or may not eventually go 18 holes with the
president, but golfing fans might say he snagged a more impressive
partner when he played a round with Tiger Woods in a pro-am
tournament at the prestigious Congressional Country Club in
Maryland a couple years ago.

Woods laughed when asked to recall that day.

”Obviously,” Woods said, ”his day job is a lot better than
his golf swing.”

Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP