Diplomatic Links

Where low score wins.

By Fred Stenson

I credit The Guardian for sparking my interest in the relationship between golf and politics. That publication has been all over Donald Trump’s relationship to the sport. One of their articles had a quiz about which international events coincided with what golf courses Mr. Trump happened to be playing that day. The Guardian came up with not only the number of days Mr. Trump played golf in his tempestuous first year in office (73) but how that compares to various categories of US golf enthusiasts. The paper isolated a group described as America’s most avid golfers, folks who play an average of 37 times a year. This approaches the number of rounds Barack Obama played per year of his presidency but isn’t even close to what superhuman Trump can do.

Imagine running the most powerful nation in the world while teeing off 73 times per annum. Nor did Trump restrict himself to Washington, DC, courses; he sprinkled his attendance around links in many states. I can only assume a lot of golfers in the “most avid” category are retired, and yet the president can double their rounds—while president. What incredible time management skills he must have! No wonder he refers to himself as a stable genius. (At first I thought this must mean he’s good at picking thoroughbreds at the track, but I’ve been straightened out on this; it refers to the strength of his vast super-computing mind.)

From these articles, I realized I was neglecting to use golf as a lens through which to view North American politics. In the US the golf–politics linkage is obvious and ironclad. Good as Trump is at squeezing in a game or two per week, he’ll have to increase his play to overtake the all-time leader, Ike Eisenhower, who is said to have golfed a thousand times in two terms. The amazing truth is that, since the rise of golf’s popularity in the early 20th century, all but two US presidents have been golfers. Trump’s recent competition—Obama, Bush Jr., Clinton and Bush Sr.—all played a lot, but Donald is likely to scorch them all, if only he can get a second term.

I’m not saying being US president is less demanding than people think. Or that prime ministers work harder than presidents. Perish the thought!

But what about Canadian prime ministers? Do they contend in this sweepstakes? Let’s start with Justin Trudeau, since he’s known to be sporty. He lists half a dozen sports when asked what he plays, was once a snowboard instructor at Whistler and solidly defeated Senator Patrick Brazeau in an exhibition boxing match. But guess what? Golf does not make his list.

Prior to Trudeau we had Stephen Harper, who was/is fond of sports but in more of a box-seat capacity. He has written a book about hockey history that he liked to give away to visitors to the PMO.

If we go back as far as Paul Martin, we hit paydirt. I don’t know his handicap but I do know Mr. Martin was fined in Quebec for cutting down trees to make a private six-hole course. Martin’s predecessor and rival, Jean Chrétien, is a golfer. He played Clinton so often that Chrétien renamed a “mulligan” (a replayed shot) a “Clinton.” Chrétien was once teamed with Tiger Woods in a charity tournament and described the pressure as intense, exceeding that of Parliament. More famously yet, Justice Gomery—he of the Commission—called Chrétien “small town cheap” for selling 300 autographed golf balls at $4 apiece.

This leads to Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney and John Turner. I may be missing something but I don’t think any of them are/were golfers. Turner was a Rhodes Scholar and once held the Canadian record for the 100-yard dash—but golf? Not mentioned in any sources.

Pierre Trudeau was certainly a skier and canoeist and taught his future-PM son to box, but again no sign of golf on the resumé. Lester B. Pearson may have been the sportiest PM ever, with a background in hockey, rugby, baseball and lacrosse. He did play both tennis and golf as an adult, but I can find no mention of his rounds per year as PM. Joe Clark? No. Diefenbaker? No.

What I’m looking for down this rabbit hole isn’t anything as cheap as suggesting that being America’s president is less demanding than most people think. Or that Canadian prime ministers work harder than US presidents. Perish the thought!

What I am suggesting is a possible reason why Canadian prime ministers and US presidents have so much trouble relating on items such as trade. Could the lack of passion for golf on our side be a contributing factor? Would we have a stable North American Free Trade Agreement today if Justin Trudeau had stowed the boxing gloves, borrowed a bag of golf clubs and headed for Mar-a-Lago? Turned a blind eye when the Donald was entering his scores?

Maybe all I’m suggesting is that Canadian parents hoping to raise a future Prime Minister should consider packaging a driver and putter along with the first hockey stick come next Christmas. Consider it a diplomatic investment.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.


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