TIME White House

The Story Behind President Obama’s Custom Golf Balls

Not all golf balls are created equal when the President tees up for a foursome

Golfing at the tony Congressional Country Club this weekend, President Barack Obama shanked a ball off the first tee into the woods, providing a similarly unlucky player with a keepsake souvenir—a personalized presidential golf ball.

Dallas resident Pace Doherty found the president’s ball on Sunday, a day after the duffer-in-chief hit the links with aide Marvin Nicholson and ESPN personalities Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. The Titleist balls were personalized with Obama’s official nicknames, with the word “POTUS” on one side and the number “44” on the other. (Obama is the 44th President of the United States, and POTUS is the quasi-official acronym for his job title.)

A source familiar with the president’s golfing confirmed that Obama personally pays for the golf balls, which retail for $57.99 a dozen, or about $10 more than a non-customized set.

Doherty posted a photo of the custom golf ball on Instagram.

Titleist spokesman Eric Soderstrom identified the ball as from the company’s signature Pro V1 line, currently played by 2013 Green Jacket winner Adam Scott. “We have been supplying golf balls to golfing presidents for many years,” he said Monday. “It is harder than you think to stamp perfectly on a round sphere with dimples in it.”

In his definitive tome on presidential golfing, First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush, ESPN reporter Don Van Natta, Jr. records former President Richard Nixon playing with custom golf balls featuring his signature and the presidential seal. Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all had golf balls featuring their signatures as well.

Presidential golf balls and boxes, 1970-92.
Presidential golf balls and boxes signed by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. Sarah Fabian-Baddiel—Heritage Images/Getty Images

The golf ball in question differs slightly in design from Obama’s first presidential model, also a Pro V1. The initial version featured the “44” with the presidential seal on the opposite side. Titleist sold Obama those balls in a custom half-dozen box emblazoned with the presidential seal.

As recently as 2010, double-digit play numbers were reserved for the commander in chief alone, requiring the company to make special modifications to its processing line. But no longer. The company upgraded its manufacturing systems to allow anyone to print double-digit play numbers. Custom Pro V1 golf balls monogrammed with a “44” and “POTUS” like Obama’s retail for $57.99 on the website Golfsmith.com.

Amazon.com sells the monogram-free stock dozen Pro V1 golf balls for $47.95.

 

 

 

MONEY

10 Things Americans Have Suddenly Stopped Buying

Popping bubble gum
Ross Culshaw—Getty Images

America is just not the clean-shaven, gun-buying, soda-drinking, Chef Boyardee-eating place it used to be

For a variety of reasons—including but not limited to increased health consciousness, the harried pace of modern-day life, and plain old shifting consumer preferences,—Americans have scaled back on purchases of many items, sometimes drastically so. Here’s a top 10 list of things we’re not buying anymore, at least not anywhere near as frequently as we used to.

Cereal
In one recent four-week period, cereal sales were down 7%, and cereal giant Kellogg’s sales decreased 10%. The reasons for cereal’s declining dominance at the breakfast table are many. As the Wall Street Journal reported, consumers are more apt nowadays to turn to yogurt or fast food in the morning, and they’re less likely to have time to eat breakfast at home at all—not even if it’s a simple bowl of cereal.

Consumers also want their breakfast to pack more punch, protein-wise. “We are competing with quick-serve restaurants more, but the bigger driver is that people want more protein,” Kellogg CEO John Bryant told the Journal. It’s no coincidence that milk sales have been falling alongside cereal, with cow’s milk struggling especially due to the rise of alternatives like soy and almond milk. (Sales of yet another breakfast-at-home staple, orange juice, have plummeted 40% since the late 1990s.)

To try to put cereal back on the spoon of more breakfast eaters, food makers have been resorting to all manner of gimmicks, including the promoting of new higher-protein cereals, as well as the idea that cereal is a great late-night snack rather than just a breakfast-time basic.

Soda
The crash of soda—diet soda in particular—has been years in the making, with consumers increasingly turning to energy drinks, flavored water, and other beverages instead of the old carbonated caffeine drink of choice. The latest Wall Street report from Coca-Cola showed that the soda giant missed estimates, partly because sales of Diet Coke in North America fell in the “mid-single digits.”

(MORE: 10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On)

While a lot of soda’s slump can be attributed to shifting consumer preferences—more organic, less sugar—the broader war on soda involving taxes and big-beverage bans must factor in too. And if First Lady Michelle Obama has any say in things, the decline of soda is a trend that’ll continue: Her ongoing “Drink Up” campaign encourages kids to consume more water—and, consequently, less soda.

Gum
Likely due to heightened competition from mints and candies, chewing gum sales have dipped 11% over the past four years, the Associated Press reported. The editorial board of the News Tribune of Washington state, for one, weighed in that it is wonderful that gum sales are down in the gutter, sniffing, “Gum-chewing doesn’t do us any favors, making us look like cows chewing our cud. For humans, that’s not a good look.”

Guns
Gun sales have been booming in recent years, with sales periodically juiced when perceived anti-gun politicians enter office or a high-profile mass shooting takes place, prompting consumers to seek guns for protection—or just out of fear they won’t be able to buy them in the future because tougher gun regulations might be passed.

Lately, however, gun sales have fallen, sometimes sharply. The big reasons why this is so seem to be that there’s little in the way of likely gun control for gun enthusiasts to motivate new purchases, and also that everyone who has wanted to buy a gun in the past couple of years has already bought one (or seven). In the first quarter of 2014, the guns-and-ammo-focused Sportsman’s Warehouse retail chain saw comparable stores sales drop 18%, while gun sales at Cabela’s fell 22%.

But a little perspective is necessary. While guns sales and background checks are down compared to the past couple of years, they remain far above the levels of the early ’00s. As gun industry experts have put it, the decline probably just represents a “returning to normal” for gun sales—which aren’t as strong as they once were, but are still very strong nonetheless.

Cupcakes
Well, it looks like many of us at least have stopped buying the pricey “gourmet” variety of cupcakes. That’s the conclusion to be drawn with the collapse of Crumbs, the 65-store chain that shut down abruptly in early July. The news was widely interpreted as a sign that the gourmet cupcake trend is officially dead.

Chef Boyardee
ConAgra recently issued a warning to Wall Street that its consumer food volume experienced a 7% decline, and that it faced “continued profit challenges” due to some of its flagging, tired products—in particular, Chef Boyardee, the 86-year-old canned pasta brand.

Golf Gear
It’s not surprising that going hand in hand with fewer people playing golf, there are also fewer golf purchases being rung up at sporting goods store registers. The most notable eye-opener occurred this past spring, when Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that its golf equipment sales were down around 10%, at the same time the average driver was selling at a price of 16% less.

(MORE: Could Rory McIlroy Be Golf’s Long-Awaited Savior?)

Razors
Beard-loving hipsters were blamed for the decline in razor sales last summer, and in 2014, razor giants like Procter and Gamble (owner of Gillette) has continued to blame poor sales on the trendiness of beards. Everything from the shaggy beards worn by the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, to month-long no-shave “challenges” like Movember and Decembeard have been cited as reasons why guys have scaled back on razor purchases. In response, marketers have introduced even more varieties of new high-tech razors, while also pushing the concept of “manscaping,” with special razors designed just for the task. The hope is that even if men aren’t shaving their faces, they might still shave one or several other parts of their bodies.

Bread
According to one survey, 56% of American shoppers said they are cutting back on white bread. White bread was surpassed in sales by wheat bread sometime around 2006, but in recent years the gluten-free trend has hurt sales of all breads. Sales are even down in European countries like baguette-loving France, where consumption is down 10%. In American restaurants, meanwhile, there’s an epidemic of free bread disappearing from tables, as fewer owners want to bear the expense of putting out free rolls and other breads that no one is going to eat.

Convertibles
The fun-loving, wind-in-your-hair thrill of driving in a convertible just hasn’t been enough to keep consumers buying the classic ragtop in strong numbers. Businessweek noted that convertible sales have fallen 44% since 2004, and automakers have been significantly scaling back the number of models that are even offered in convertible form. Apparently, too many consumers see convertibles as impractical, and/or not worth the $5,000 or so premium one must pay compared to the regular model.

Data recently released from Experian Automotive indicates that the convertible is largely now a toy purchased by the rich. Nearly 1 in 5 convertible buyers have household incomes of at least $175,000 (compared to 11% of buyers of all cars), and 12% of convertible buyers own homes valued over $1 million (compared to 4% of buyers of other cars). For what it’s worth, convertible drivers are also better educated than the average car owner (50% of convertible buyers have at least a bachelor’s degree, versus 38% overall), and nearly one-quarter of all convertibles are now purchased in three sunny states with ample coastlines: California, Florida, and Texas.

Related:

10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On

TIME Photos

Feel Good Friday: 14 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

From inflatable toads to Taiwanese "frog men," here's a handful of photos to get your weekend started right

MONEY Sports

Could 25-Year-Old Rory McIlroy Be Golf’s Long-Awaited Savior?

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland holds up the Claret Jug trophy
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland holds up the Claret Jug trophy after winning the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Liverpool golf club, Hoylake, England, Sunday July 20, 2014. Scott Heppell—AP

He was the consensus choice as golf's "next big thing" even before winning the British Open over the weekend.

As a sport and a business, golf is stuck in a proverbial sand trap, probably the deepest and most difficult one ever encountered by the industry. Player numbers are on the decline, especially among young people, and golf course closings in the U.S. are trumping golf course openings by a stunning ratio of nearly 10 to 1.

There is some hope, however, that golf will experience a renaissance, even among kids who are now too accustomed to instant gratification and too distracted by smartphones and social media to bother venturing outside to play baseball or go for a hike, let alone try their hands at the time-consuming, frustrating “old person’s sport” of golf. And one of the big reasons for this optimism is that today’s most exciting players also happen to be kids, and none more exciting than Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old winner of the 2014 British Open.

OK, so a 25-year-old isn’t exactly a child. But he’s a kid compared with the prototypical gray-haired, 50-something golfer out on the links. And his success couldn’t come at a better time. McIlroy is part of a much-needed youth movement in golf, notes Jim Frank, a contributing editor to Links Magazine who has covered the sport for three decades. Joined by emerging superstars Rickie Fowler, who is also 25 and is known for cool clothes and shaggy Bieber-like hair, and incredibly talented young female golfers like Lexi Thompson (19) and Lydia Ko (all of 17), McIlroy is seen as a fresh injection of energy, excitement, and—dare we say it?—perhaps even hipness into the sport.

“He supposedly took the first selfie of a British Open winner,” said Frank. Hey, that’s gotta count for something.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of McIlroy and the rest of the youth movement—besides their unwrinkled, photogenic faces and a generally cooler appearance compared with the usual grandpas on the links—is that they’re changing the perception of how to play golf and when one tends to peak in the sport. “In the past, the assumption was that you didn’t really hit your stride until your 30s, after you’ve worked out the kinks in your game,” said Frank. “Today’s young players are really powerful, they wrench their backs and really hit the ball hard. And they’ve been playing so long that by the time they’re in the late teens and early 20s, they can dominate.” (They can also get injured; just look at how Tiger Woods’s body has fared in recent years.)

Nonetheless, the excitement, power, and youth that McIlroy and his peers bring to the game has to be good for golf, right? Sure, to some extent. But Frank believes it will take more than one charismatic, curly-haired Irishman to turn the tide.

“Are 14-year-olds sitting in front of a TV on a Sunday morning at 10 o’clock watching Rory McIlroy?” Frank said. The answer, of course, is no. While some parts of the golf world are trying to make changes to become more appealing to younger players and families, Frank believes that some retrenchment is still needed, and that the sport will always remain a niche activity, and one that always skews older.

When people in the business talk about rejuvenating the sport, they sometimes ask, “What’s the snowboarding of golf?” said Frank. “Snowboarding brought young people back to the mountains, and it helped save skiing.” Unfortunately, because a sizeable faction of the golf world has no interest in changing the game or doing much of anything to appeal to younger people, “there may not be an equivalent of snowboarding. But that’s the way we have to think of it.”

The big irony, Frank said, is that right now, when golf seems to be struggling so mightily in its attempts to attract new players to the game, there has never been a better time to play. “The equipment has never been better, and there’s great value for what you can buy fairly cheaply,” said Frank. “You can get on almost any golf course in the world, or join almost any club if you want. There are no lines, and there aren’t people behind you telling you to play faster.”

TIME golf

Rory Mcllroy’s Dad Wins $85,000 Bet on Son’s British Open Win

In 2004, Gerry Mcllroy bet his son would win the British Open before he turned 26, at odds of 500-1

Rory Mcllroy’s dad Gerry won over $85,000 from a bet he made in 2004 that his son, then 15, would win the British Open within the next 10 years.

The elder Mcllroy bet 200 pounds ($341) in 2004 that his son would win the British Open by the age of 25 at odds of 500-1, the BBC reports. Rory Mcllroy won the golfing tournament by two shots on Sunday. The bet was made through bookmaker Ladbrokes.

“Nine out of 10 times, these bets come to nothing, but on this occasion the punters definitely knew more than we did,” said Jessica Bridge, spokeswoman for bookmaker Ladbrokes. “And we can only doff our cap to their confidence and foresight.”

[BBC]

MONEY Sports

Tiger’s Back—But Golf Is Still In a Hole

digging golf ball out of bunker
Thomas Northcut—Getty Images

Tiger Woods has finally returned from injury and is playing the British Open this weekend. But is he back in time to save his sport from irrelevancy?

Tiger Woods is back on the course at the British Open this weekend, his first major tournament in nearly a year. Though he took home the trophy the last time it was played at Royal Liverpool, in 2006, he’s facing a tougher challenge this time, starting Saturday’s round 14 shots behind leader Rory McIlroy.

A Tiger on the hunt is always good for television ratings, but even the return of golf’s highest-profile player may not be enough to blast the sport out of its current hole. Golfer numbers are down. Golf equipment sales have been tanking. The number of golf courses closing annually is supposed to dwarf the number of new courses opening for years to come. “We really don’t know what the bottom is in golf,” Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack said in a conference call in June, attempting to explain why golf gear sales have fallen off a cliff. “We anticipated softness, but instead we saw significant decline. We underestimated how significant a decline this would be.”

What accounts for golf’s present rough patch? Here are a handful of reasons, including the curious case of Woods himself.

People are too damn busy. When someone asks how you’re doing, the response among working professionals and working parents especially is probably a kneejerk “crazy busy.” Studies show that leisure time has shrunk for both sexes, and that dads are doing more work around the house, though moms still devote more time to chores and childcare than their spouses. A so-called “leisure gap” still exists between mothers and fathers, and while dads tend to enjoy an extra hour per day of free time on weekends, they’re more likely to be watching TV than hitting the links. Fathers spend an average of 2.6 hours per week participating in sports (compared to 1.4 hours for mothers), which isn’t nearly enough time to play 18 holes.

As new dad Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal put it recently, speaking for dads—all parents, really—everywhere, “It is more likely I will become the next prime minister of Belgium than it is that I will find 4½ hours on a weekend to go play golf.”

A year ago, golf groups launched a “Time for Nine” campaign, pushing the idea that, because so many people can’t find the time for 18 holes, it’s acceptable to play a mere nine holes. The problem is that it looks like people don’t have time for nine holes either, lately.

It’s elitist and too expensive. There are plenty of ways to save money on golf, including booking discounted, off-peak tee times and finding deals on equipment. So golf can be affordable.

It’s just that, by and large, the sport has a well-deserved reputation for being pricey—think $400 drivers, $250,000 club “initiation” fees, and too many gadgets to mention. The snooty factor goes hand in hand with the astronomical prices and atmosphere on the typical course. As USA Today columnist Christine Brennan cautioned recently, unless the sport figures out a way to change course, “Golf is destined to continue to hemorrhage participants and further ensure its place as a mostly-white, suburban, rich men’s niche sport with plenty of TV sponsors who make cars, write insurance and invest money.”

It’s just not cool. In 2009, Jack Nicklaus lamented, “Kids just don’t play golf any more in the United States and it is sad.”

American kids today seem to be nearly as overscheduled as their parents. And like their parents, tweens and teens probably don’t have the time to regularly play 18 holes, what with soccer practice, saxophone lessons, and coding classes to attend to. Even if kids had more time, would they want to spend it playing an “old man sport”? When iPhones and tablets and Xboxes and Instagram are drawing their attention?

Among the suggestions offered by Golf Digest to increase participation in the sport, columnist Ron Sirak recommended that the USGA should fund caddie programs, and that private clubs should give four-year “scholarships” to junior players, with free lessons and playing privileges.

It’s too difficult. Pretty much every other sport on the planet is more immediately rewarding than golf. Take a snowboard lesson in the morning, and by afternoon, you can make a few turns down the bunny trail without falling (much). Golf is renowned not only for being frustratingly difficult for beginners, but even longtime players “enjoy” it as a frustratingly difficult hobby.

“The deep appeal of golf, once you get hooked, is that it’s difficult,” John Paul Newport, golf columnist for the Wall Street Journal, told NPR in May. “Normally when you play a round of golf, you step onto the green and that’s when all the intense stress starts. You know, this tiny little hole, you have to look at putts from many ways, you hit it a few feet past and you add up strokes quickly around the green.”

Newport was discussing a new golfing option involving 15-inch cups, a system created to make the game much easier and approachable, particularly for beginners. But don’t expect to see it anytime soon. In the description to Golf Is Dying. Does Anybody Care? author Pat Gallagher points to golf’s “resistance to productive change” as a big reason why participation has slumped dramatically. “While other sports have embraced new technology and innovation with open arms, traditionalists strive to protect the game of golf and keep it exactly as they love it—even in the face of suffering courses and shrinking audiences.”

Tiger Woods. Skeptics insist that golf isn’t dying. Not by a long shot. The sport’s popularity, they say, is merely taking a natural dip after soaring to unjustified heights during the “golf bubble” brought on by the worldwide phenomenon that was Woods. After the infidelity scandals and, more recently, poor play and loads of injuries from Woods, fewer people are watching golf on TV, buying golf gear in stores, and, you know, actually going out and playing golf.

So perhaps it’s not so much that golf is losing favor with the masses today as it is that golf’s widespread popularity a decade or so ago was something of a fluke. The decline in golf, then, would basically be the return of golf’s status as a niche game. “Golf courses were overbuilt, saturating major cities and secondary markets with ridiculous golf hole per capita ratios,” golf blogger David Hill wrote in a manifesto on why the sport, in fact, isn’t dying. “Tiger’s decline from Teflon coated Superhero to mere great golfer precipitated the bursting of the golf bubble. It’s as simple as that.”

TIME Photos

Photos: The Week in Sports

Kickoff of the World Cup, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup and the U.S. Open all made for a week packed with sports. Here are TIME's best photos from these athletic events

TIME golf

PHOTO: 11-Year-Old Tees Off as Youngest-Ever Player in U.S. Women’s Open History

Lucy Li Youngest Player at US Womens Open
Lucy Li, 11, plays her tee shot during the first round of the 69th U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, in Pinehurst, North Carolina on June 19, 2014. David Cannon—Getty

At 11 years old, Lucy Li is the youngest-ever qualifier at the U.S. Women’s Open. Wearing an American flag outfit and braces on her teeth, Li teed off Thursday at Pinehurst Golf Club at the biggest event in women’s golf.

MONEY Sports

Fore! No, Make That Five! 5 Reasons Golf Is in a Hole

digging golf ball out of bunker
Thomas Northcut—Getty Images

Golf's U.S. Open and Father's Day both take place this weekend. Chances are, dad isn't celebrating by playing golf.

Golfer numbers are down. Golf equipment sales have been tanking. The number of golf courses closing annually is supposed to dwarf the number of new courses opening for years to come. “We really don’t know what the bottom is in golf,” Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack said in a recent conference call, attempting to explain why golf gear sales have fallen off a cliff. “We anticipated softness, but instead we saw significant decline. We underestimated how significant a decline this would be.”

Insult to injury: Tiger Woods isn’t playing in the U.S. Open this weekend, and that’s sure to hurt TV ratings big time. The overarching question, though, is why the golf business has entered such a rough patch—and why it looks to remain in a sand trap, so to speak, for quite some time. Here are a handful of reasons, including the curious case of Woods himself.

People are too damn busy. When someone asks how you’re doing, the response among working professionals and working parents especially is probably a kneejerk “crazy busy.” Studies show that leisure time has shrunk for both sexes, and that dads are doing more work around the house, though moms still devote more time to chores and childcare than their spouses. A so-called “leisure gap” still exists between mothers and fathers, and while dads tend to enjoy an extra hour per day of free time on weekends, they’re more likely to be watching TV than hitting the links. Fathers spend an average of 2.6 hours per week participating in sports (compared to 1.4 hours for mothers), which isn’t nearly enough time to play 18 holes.

As new dad Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal put it recently, speaking for dads—all parents, really—everywhere, “It is more likely I will become the next prime minister of Belgium than it is that I will find 4½ hours on a weekend to go play golf.”

A year ago, golf groups launched a “Time for Nine” campaign, pushing the idea that, because so many people can’t find the time for 18 holes, it’s acceptable to play a mere nine holes. The problem is that it looks like people don’t have time for nine holes either, lately.

It’s elitist and too expensive. There are plenty of ways to save money on golf, including booking discounted, off-peak tee times and finding deals on equipment. So golf can be affordable.

It’s just that, by and large, the sport has a well-deserved reputation for being pricey—think $400 drivers, $250,000 club “initiation” fees, and too many gadgets to mention. The snooty factor goes hand in hand with the astronomical prices and atmosphere on the typical course. As USA Today columnist Christine Brennan cautioned recently, unless the sport figures out a way to change course, “Golf is destined to continue to hemorrhage participants and further ensure its place as a mostly-white, suburban, rich men’s niche sport with plenty of TV sponsors who make cars, write insurance and invest money.”

It’s just not cool. In 2009, Jack Nicklaus lamented, “Kids just don’t play golf any more in the United States and it is sad.”

American kids today seem to be nearly as overscheduled as their parents. And like their parents, tweens and teens probably don’t have the time to regularly play 18 holes, what with soccer practice, saxophone lessons, and coding classes to attend to. Even if kids had more time, would they want to spend it playing an “old man sport”? When iPhones and tablets and Xboxes and Instagram are drawing their attention?

Among the suggestions offered by Golf Digest to increase participation in the sport, columnist Ron Sirak recommended that the USGA should fund caddie programs, and that private clubs should give four-year “scholarships” to junior players, with free lessons and playing privileges.

It’s too difficult. Pretty much every other sport on the planet is more immediately rewarding than golf. Take a snowboard lesson in the morning, and by afternoon, you can make a few turns down the bunny trail without falling (much). Golf is renowned not only for being frustratingly difficult for beginners, but even longtime players “enjoy” it as a frustratingly difficult hobby.

“The deep appeal of golf, once you get hooked, is that it’s difficult,” John Paul Newport, golf columnist for the Wall Street Journal, told NPR last month. “Normally when you play a round of golf, you step onto the green and that’s when all the intense stress starts. You know, this tiny little hole, you have to look at putts from many ways, you hit it a few feet past and you add up strokes quickly around the green.”

Newport was discussing a new golfing option involving 15-inch cups, a system created to make the game much easier and approachable, particularly for beginners. But don’t expect to see it anytime soon. In the description to Golf Is Dying. Does Anybody Care? author Pat Gallagher points to golf’s “resistance to productive change” as a big reason why participation has slumped dramatically. “While other sports have embraced new technology and innovation with open arms, traditionalists strive to protect the game of golf and keep it exactly as they love it—even in the face of suffering courses and shrinking audiences.”

Tiger Woods. Skeptics insist that golf isn’t dying. Not by a long shot. The sport’s popularity, they say, is merely taking a natural dip after soaring to unjustified heights during the “golf bubble” brought on by the worldwide phenomenon that was Tiger Woods. After the infidelity scandals and, more recently, poor play and loads of injuries from Woods, fewer people are watching golf on TV, buying golf gear in stores, and, you know, actually going out and playing golf.

So perhaps it’s not so much that golf is losing favor with the masses today as it is that golf’s widespread popularity a decade or so ago was something of a fluke. The decline in golf, then, would basically be the return of golf’s status as a niche game. “Golf courses were overbuilt, saturating major cities and secondary markets with ridiculous golf hole per capita ratios,” golf blogger David Hill wrote in a manifesto on why the sport, in fact, isn’t dying. “Tiger’s decline from Teflon coated Superhero to mere great golfer precipitated the bursting of the golf bubble. It’s as simple as that.”

TIME White House

The Inside Story of Obama’s Golf Game with a Lawyer, a Lobbyist and an Oil Man

Obama Golf
The motorcade carrying President Barack Obama arrives at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club where the President is expected to play golf in Gainesville, Va., on May 17, 2014. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

What it’s like to go golfing with the leader of the free world and a lobbyist

Correction appended May 21 at 10:10pm

President Obama caught a lot of flack earlier this week for golfing Saturday with a lobbyist, a Dallas lawyer and the chairman of a Texas utility who also sits on the board of Halliburton.

The game drew attention because it was unusual in two ways. First, Obama decided not to play on his favored golf courses—Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Belvoir—but at the swanky, invitation-only Robert Trent Jones Golf Club on the shores of Lake Manassas in Gainesville, Virginia. Second, he swapped out his usual coterie of junior aides for a foresome that looked like a political schmooze fest: his former Trade Representative Ron Kirk who now works at the law firm Gibson Dunn, CenterPoint Chairman and Halliburton board member Milton Carroll and lobbyist Joe O’Neill of Public Strategies Washington.

The combination got the attention of the press.”I think he played a game of golf,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, when asked about the round. The White House declined to provide any further information about the outing, or what was discussed.

But interviews with people close to the men who played Saturday reveal some parts of the back story behind the power pairings. It all begins with Ron Kirk, who before leaving public life was one of the President’s favorite golf partners. (The Saturday outing was his 21st round of golf with the President.) From Kirk, the foursome grew with Texas connections. He knows O’Neill, a lobbyist for companies like Bain Capital, Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Edison Electric Institute, from when they both worked for the late Texas Senator Lloyd Benson. “Ron Kirk is about the most fun person to be around on the planet. Joe is right up there on the fun scale,” says Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush who knows both men through Texas politics. “Sounds to me like just some really fun people to play golf with.”

Kirk, a former Texas secretary of state and mayor of Dallas, also knows Carroll from Texas circles going back to the 1980s. But Carroll had a second ticket onto the first tee: Obama knows Carroll from Chicago, where Carroll has served as a director of the Healthcare Service Corporation since 1998 and as its chairman since 2002. Michelle Obama has connections with the University of Chicago’s medical school, and many longtime Obama family friends hail from the medical and healthcare worlds.

Saturday was the first time O’Neill and Carroll had met, according to two friends of Carroll. “He was asking me about Joe after that game and said he was a great golfer,” says Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, who has known Carroll since high school.

By all accounts, Carroll is an excellent golfer and one not prone to tone down his game to boost the ego of a weaker player, even if that player is the President of the United States. “The President is a good golfer; he enjoys the game and the competition,” Carroll said in a statement to TIME. Carroll is also known for his discretion. “I can recall a reporter years ago wondering how he managed to be so close to congressmen and powerful people,” Ellis says. “He was dubbed Milton none-of-your-business Carroll. He was such a private guy.”

So, did the men get into Carroll’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline or O’Neill’s lobbying agenda? None of the four are talking.

Most of Obama’s sporting outings involve a lot of trash talking and friendly competition, but talk can turn serious. The last time Carroll played with the President in Florida last year, Obama was grappling with a domestic issue. “Milton commented on how brilliant [the President] was on all side of the issue,” says Ben Hall, a Houston attorney who has know Carroll for more than 20 years. “He said he really had an understanding of the implications of all sides.”

 

For more on Obama’s golf partners, see this interactive graphic below, which is current as of the beginning of 2014.

CORRECTION: The story originally misstated the cities where Kirk and O’Neill work. Kirk works in Dallas, and O’Neill has not recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Texas. Also the story has been changed to reflect the proper spelling of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

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