Museum Moment: Ike’s Near Ace At Augusta

Apr 05, 2012

By Ron Driscoll

At Augusta National this week, players will work their tee shots on the 17th hole past or over the Eisenhower Tree. A pond and a cabin on the fabled grounds are also named for the club’s most prominent guest, President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower. Most people don’t know that the beloved five-star general and two-term leader of the country also came remarkably close to having a teeing ground there associated with him.

The story of Ike’s near heroics came to light in 1962, when he was asked to donate a club to the USGA Museum, which was then located at the Association’s headquarters in New York City. Eisenhower had completed his two terms as president in 1960, and he relayed an unusual incident that had occurred a few years earlier in a letter to then-USGA President John D. Ames that accompanied the donated club, a 5-wood.

“The club I am sending you,” Eisenhower wrote in a letter dated May 22, 1962, “is a replacement I secured a few years ago for one that formed the basis of a personal story.”

Eisenhower was playing the par-3 fourth hole at Augusta in a foursome that included longtime club chairman Clifford Roberts, and he selected a 5-wood for his tee shot. “I started a normal swing,” Eisenhower recalled, “but at the precise instant that my club struck the ball something happened, startling me so much that I practically jumped off the ground.”

It took Ike a few seconds to realize that he now held in his hands a golf club without a head. “I stood there stupidly staring at my club shaft, while my friends, not immediately aware of the accident, began to laugh at my frozen position and bewildered expression.”

When the rest of the group realized what had occurred, they spent a couple of minutes “indulged in some hilarity, not so much because of the destruction of the club but at my reaction.” Finally, the topic came around to the matter of the ball, for no one knew what had become of it. After a thorough search of the area around the front of the tee, they discovered the ball, lying mere inches from the hole.

It was the closest Eisenhower had ever come to a hole-in-one, making the replacement 5-wood a perfect implement to donate to the USGA collection a few years later.

If the odds for making an ace hinged solely on attempts made, surely Eisenhower would have made one by then. A review of his presidency revealed that he played about 800 rounds in his eight years in the White House, roughly twice a week, including 29 visits to Augusta National.

Obviously, Eisenhower was an ardent golfer, and he used the game to distract himself from the rigors of the presidency. A number of people were critical of Ike’s pastime, leading to the popular bumper sticker of the time: “Ben Hogan for President – if we’re going to have a golfer, let’s have a good one.”
Yet Eisenhower’s supporters did more than simply encourage his golf outings. They took up the game in huge numbers, influenced by the commander-in-chief, and by Arnold Palmer and his trademark, crowd-pleasing style of play, to the point that golf enjoyed unprecedented popularity, with the number of players reportedly doubling in 10 years’ time.

As Golf Journal, the USGA’s official publication, put it in 1969: “Transcending both Hogan and Palmer was another golfer, an amateur, and not a particularly impressive one at that. But this amateur probably converted more players to the game than either Hogan or Palmer during the decade of the 1950s.”

Ike instituted a tradition of sorts during that era, in which the winner of the Masters was invited to play with him on the Monday after the tournament ended. This frequent pairing led to Eisenhower’s longtime friendship with Arnold Palmer, a four-time champion at Augusta.

The score he shot on a particular day wasn’t important to Eisenhower; in fact, he once famously lamented to a White House reporter, “There ought to be a law against asking a person what he shot.”

Rather, as he wrote in 1953 in an open letter “to golfers and fellow duffers”: “While I know that I speak with the partisanship of an enthusiast, golf obviously provides one of our best forms of healthful exercise, accompanied by good fellowship and companionship.”

Eisenhower’s Augusta ties ran deep: Roberts and course founder Bob Jones provided a small cottage on the grounds where Ike and his wife, Mamie, could find privacy. Jones and Roberts were among an influential Augusta circle that helped to guide Eisenhower’s political career, according to a 1993 Golf Digest story by Peter Andrews. Ike’s handicap fluctuated between 14 and 18 at Augusta, and he broke 80 four times in his 21 years as a member, according to Roberts. But Roberts also allowed that he never knew anyone as enthusiastic about the game as Eisenhower.

It wasn’t until 1968, the year before his death at age 78, that Eisenhower improved upon his near-ace at Augusta. Playing Seven Lakes Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif., on Feb. 6, 1968, Eisenhower holed a 9-iron shot on the 104-yard 13th hole for his only hole-in-one.

Said the man who guided the D-Day invasion and later served as the leader of the free world, it was “the thrill of a lifetime.”

Ron Driscoll is the manager of creative services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

Eisenhower nearly aced the par-3, fourth hole at Augusta National, his ball ending up a mere inches from what would have been the only hole-in-one of his career. What made the feat more impressive was that the head of his 5-wood became detached from its shaft at impact. Eisenhower donated his replacement 5-wood to the USGA Museum in 1962. (USGA Museum)


Eisenhower played about 800 rounds in his eight years in the White House, roughly twice a week, including 29 visits to Augusta National. (USGA Museum)


Eisenhower consented to the naming of the World Amateur Team Championship prize as the Eisenhower Trophy, saying: “I visualize it as a potent force for establishing goodwill and friendship between yet another segment of the populations of nations.” Above, Eisenhower is pictured with the 1960 WATC team, including a 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus (second from right). (USGA Museum)