WASHINGTON — By Saturday, President Obama is planning to be firmly ensconced in a rental home on Martha’s Vineyard.
Over the next 15 days — the longest summer vacation of his presidency — he’ll go out to eat several times, take a bike ride, head to the beach, maybe even visit a bookstore. But far more than anything else he does, his vacation will be dominated by one thing: golf.
This is where, each year, Obama gets the most concentrated amount of golf in. And he’s now on pace to have a record year on the links.
As president, he’s golfed 19 times on the Vineyard, spending 83 hours and 49 minutes on island courses, according to a Globe review of his past year’s vacation itineraries.
His favorite course by far is Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown (10 times), but he also frequents Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs (five times) and the nine-hole course at Mink Meadows in Vineyard Haven (four times).
And he golfs like he governs. He goes with a small circle of friends and advisers (his Vineyard foursome almost always includes aide Marvin Nicholson and friend Eric Whitaker). He rarely engages with other politicians (one exception was a game with then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) but occasionally invites celebrities (last year comedian Larry David joined him).
He plays the game in a slow, methodical way, and is said not to cheat (unlike President Clinton, who is known to take frequent mulligans, or extra shots when the first one goes awry). But there’s a fair amount of trash talk, and the commander in chief will often challenge companions to small bets.
“He’s a slow player. It indicates one of two things. One is he’s not very good and there’s a lot of strokes and ball hunting going on,” said Don Van Natta, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of “First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush.” “Or it could indicate that he cherishes the time out there. . . . He has talked about how he disdains being in the gilded cage of the White House. For him, the golf course is an escape hatch.”
The White House never releases Obama’s golf scores and often restricts reporters from watching Obama tee off, so it is impossible to tell whether all the time on the links has paid off.
“What I’ve heard through the grapevine is he has gotten better,” Van Natta said. “You hope so because he’s played a lot.”
But it’s clear that his games are calmer affairs than some of his predecessors. There have been no incidents like when Clinton could be heard in 1993 shouting from a hole at Mink Meadows, “Whoa, mama, stay up!”
For the past century, golfing has been the activity of choice for presidents. Almost every chief since William Howard Taft has been a golfer.
President Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most avid, playing 800 times over eight years and often hitting balls on the White House lawn in the afternoons. Woodrow Wilson actually spent more time golfing, racking up some 1,000 rounds over eight years, but he was known as a terrible golfer.
John F. Kennedy, who had a single-digit handicap, was among the best, and was also known for his speedy, sometimes frenetic, play.
But for as long as presidents have been putting, there have been critics.
Kennedy joked so much about Eisenhower’s time on the course — saying he invented the “36-hole workweek” because Eisenhower would play 18 holes on Wednesdays and Saturdays — that when Kennedy became president he tried to hide the fact that he, too, was an avid golfer.
Clinton’s advisers tried to convince him not to golf, since it didn’t poll well (he golfed anyway).
But the criticism has gotten more intense under Obama, whose golf games have come during a down economy and at a time when social media points out every time he hits the links. Mitt Romney (not a golfer) even set up a website to knock Obama’s time on the course.
“Through the last 100 years, presidents have always had to deal with criticism,” Van Natta said. “But I think Obama has maybe received more than any of his predecessors.”
Obama has golfed about 180 times during his presidency so far, meaning he’ll fall behind Eisenhower and Wilson and almost certainly won’t even catch up to Clinton’s 400 rounds.
Even former president George W. Bush has come to Obama’s defense.
“I think he ought to play golf,” Bush told the Golf Channel in 2013. “To be able to get outside and play golf with some of your pals is important for the president. It gives you an outlet.”
Bush played golf during the first part of his presidency — tallying 24 times — but not always without controversy. In one memorable instance in 2002, he gave a statement decrying terrorist attacks in Israel. Then he paused, got his club ready, and said, “Now watch this drive.”
A year later, Bush stopped golfing out of “solidarity” with families whose loved ones were fighting in Iraq, turning to mountain biking instead.
Obama began golfing in 1997, taking it up on the advice of his wife as a diversion from his beloved — but injury-causing — basketball.
He has said recently that golf is a way for him to “relax and clear my head.”
“I want to thank Phil Mickelson for giving me an excellent tip on my sand game,” Obama said in June, during a Presidents Cup reception at the White House. “Because I’m pretty sure I can shave at least two or three strokes if I can just get out of the darn sand.”
Over the next two weeks, the courses on the Vineyard will find out whether that’s true.