William Howard Taft was already having quite the time when he teed it up on the seventh hole at Kebo Valley Golf Club in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1910. The president’s Northeast vacation had been a constant relay of dinner parties, golf rounds and bad news from Washington. It’s a wonder Taft had any time to be president at all.
He reckoned he could still use more time off.
“The American people have found out that there is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one’s health and constitution,” he’d earlier proclaimed from the town’s bandstand to onlookers. “And that two to three months’ vacation after the hard and nervous strain to which one is subjected during the autumn and spring are necessary in order to enable one to continue his work the next year with that energy and effectiveness which it ought to have.”
Historians note that Taft’s legacy evokes little more than refreshing the capital of his health and constitution.
The passage of time has not treated the 27th president of the United States well. While he is still the only man to serve as both America’s president and its chief justice, he also remains the heaviest-ever commander in chief (he weighed more than 350 pounds while in office) and is nearly as well known for his reported struggles exiting a White House bathtub. The incident highlights Taft’s notorious love of food, but he had another vice—one that better reflected his failure to win reelection, and portended the collapse of the Republican Party around him.
Taft earned the somewhat derisive nickname “First Golfing President” after logging at least 119 rounds between winning the White House in 1908 and leaving it in 1912. Taft seized every opportunity to find fairways. When stuck in Washington, D.C., he frequented the Chevy Chase Country Club. On the road, he had a fondness for Myopia Hunt Club and Essex Country Club. His least-favorite place to do business may have been the Oval Office.
The press characterized Taft as more prone to pursuing social outings than his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive policies. That, and more than a few misguided decisions, put his term into a spiral by the summer of 1910. He was avoiding such things as he put a peg in the ground on No. 7 at Kebo.
Twenty-seven strokes later, he trudged to the eighth tee box.
It takes something special to reach the highest office in American politics. But even in that rare air, some presidents stand out more than others, and Theodore Roosevelt forged a cult of personality during his two terms. Like many leaders of this ilk, Roosevelt aimed for a replacement who could at least carry his legacy while posing no threat of usurping the groundwork laid by the master.
He chose Taft.
Jovial and amiable as expected from such girth and mustache, Taft was the best face Teddy could attach to the term he foresaw as “Roosevelt 2.” Experienced in law (though not politics) and sharing Roosevelt’s progressive ideals (though not his ambition), Taft carried little risk of shaking up the existing trust-busting and conservation-based platform. His first elected position was the presidency, and keeping things steady was the way to win reelection. Or so Roosevelt hoped.
Taft’s golf outings solidified his casual-president image. Many rounds occurred alongside congressmen, cabinet secretaries and military figures. It wasn’t odd for the president to accompany celebrities such as future baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, mining magnate John Hays Hammond or golf legend Walter Travis. It wasn’t necessarily a far cry from work at the White House. Politics, like golf, is a social game. In that regard, Taft seemed a natural.
But many felt he was too social. “You’re big enough and strong enough to make an almighty good watch dog,” Uncle Sam tells a bulldog resembling Taft in a 1909 La Follette’s cartoon. “But we’ve got to break you of that darned habit of makin’ friends with anybody an’ anythin’.”
Roosevelt made his name clashing with Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Taft played golf at Kebo, a club whose membership counted Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
Was Taft merely tone-deaf, or was something more corrupt at play? It was a buzzy topic in Washington. Author Matthew Algeo spent years researching Taft’s fascination with golf, and wrote about it in a 2017 article in The Washington Post. He suggests Taft was simply ignorant to the impact of his hobby.
“The fact that he did continue to play golf, even after he had basically been warned that it was not a good look, might be a better indicator of what his state of mind was,” Algeo says in an interview. “I think he was just going to keep playing golf, even if it cost him politically. Maybe he didn’t care.”
Acadia National Park borders the left side of what is now called the Taft Hole, providing Ansel Adams views from almost every tee box. Kebo Brook flows down from Cadillac Mountain—the tallest on the Eastern Seaboard north of Brazil—and across the property. Less than a mile inland from the Atlantic, the ocean breeze lends the same salty aura as the cliffs of Monterey and the shores of Long Island. The nation’s wealthiest understandably fell in love, buying up acres en masse to create Bar Harbor and eventually Kebo Valley.
Herbert Leeds—better known for his work on Myopia—laid out Kebo’s first six holes. He later added three more, and—after the club purchased 40 additional acres and closed the property’s horse track—another nine rounded out today’s 6,100-yard design. Some mistakenly attribute Kebo to Donald Ross, but the iconic architect had less impact on the course than two fires that destroyed the club’s first and second clubhouses. Ross made significant changes only to the third and fourth holes, and even this may have been out of charity; the club was lacking funds for significant overhauls, but Ross noted the third green was “among the worst he’d ever seen,” according to David Closson, the current club president.
The lack of funding—at one point the club was down to two members, David Rockefeller and Henry Ford II—foretold the course’s eventual conversion to a public facility. Tweaks have since been made, but few holes have evolved as much as Taft’s namesake.
The president played No. 7 when it was called Elbow, a name reflecting the original tee box. He teed off from the current No. 5 ladies’ tee, creating a sharp dogleg right, playing about 300 yards to the green. (It now plays as a straight 350-yard par 4.) Hazards have changed as well: Kebo Brook still crosses the fairway as it exits Acadia, but the large oak at the corner—which long gave members headaches reminiscent of Augusta National’s Eisenhower tree—fell during the 1980s.
Taft, if folklore holds true, did not struggle with the tree, or the brook. His fate turned in the bunker that would come to bear his name.
Taft’s published scores are few and far between. His precise struggles at No. 7 exist only because of the Kebo caddie community’s folk history, passed down across generations, until Pieter DeVos, the current club pro, learned the story from the club’s final caddymaster. Legends, especially those from the caddie barn, can grow to mythic proportions, but Taft’s tale rings too true to raise eyebrows. And this isn’t his only known tangle with a tough bunker.
Myopia Hunt’s own Taft Bunker is Exhibit A. There was no love lost between Taft and Leeds, and they actively squabbled over the depth of the cross bunker at Myopia’s 10th. The president believed it too severe, and Leeds responded by lowering it a few inches after every complaint. The feud peaked when Taft took 13 shots to escape the cavernous trap and—as a final humiliation—needed caddies and ropes to pull him out.
No assistance was needed during his round at Kebo, but Taft was trying to pull himself out of a political tailspin. He was mere months removed from a Congressional investigation that had turned against him in the wake of what became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. The event was more administrative and featured little sex appeal compared to, say, Watergate. But Taft’s amateurish and ultimately disastrous handling of what should have been a simple problem sparked a vicious turf war that would ultimately tear the Republican Party down the middle.
Taft was still smarting from the fallout when he stepped onto Kebo’s seventh tee. DeVos estimates their Taft bunker—a massive natural pit embedded in the side of an upward slope—rises 40 feet above players. Imagine Lahinch’s Klondyke, with several hundred square feet of sand tucked into the front. Sometimes “sand” is a generous description; Closson says the club brings in new sand every season for the pit, but admits that as play picks up, the area’s granite gravel begins to emerge. During Taft’s era, Kebo’s budget problems meant bringing in local sand—already rough—not the fine Canadian grain the club currently employs.
“It’s at least a penalty shot,” DeVos explains. “I’ve been in it, unfortunately, a few times. To say you’re going to get up and down from 65 to 80 yards out? Good luck. It becomes a par 5.”
Realistically, the Taft creates few problems for those playing the hole honestly. Only pros could dream of bombing over it from the tee, so most everyone lays up. They won’t be able to see the green for the second shot, but it sits well beyond the hazard. Only visual intimidation can pressure you into the pit. But as anyone who’s played a Pete Dye course will explain, that pressure is real. Closson acknowledges its role in shaping both club championships and U.S. Amateur qualifiers.
“From 120 yards out, all you can see is lip,” he says. “It’s a lot like [No. 17] at TPC Sawgrass. It’s easy if you don’t think about it.”
Taft, apparently, thought about it. And, once in the bunker, he proceeded to drill a few line drives into the wall of the trap, only for them to roll back to his feet. Every shot thereafter became increasingly difficult as Taft pounded more pockmarks into an already threadbare hazard, every new lie even worse. According to DeVos, Taft opened his niblick at such a wide angle that the ball took off in direct, rightward lines. This may have pulled him out of Myopia’s Taft bunker, but not Kebo’s. A trio of fir trees loomed over the right end of the trap, dropping Taft’s ball back into the hazard after each shank.
Basic research of the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy shows that Taft had multiple opportunities to stanch his political bleeding, but failed at every turn. Likewise, there was relief available from the bottom of the bunker. DeVos notes many members prefer to chip backward onto the grass strip that runs between Kebo Brook and the massive hazard, which provides an upward slope to boost shots over the wall of sand. It’s a shot lost, but much better than two dozen.
Too vain to take his medicine, Taft wasted 22 shots to get out of the bunker.
Taft’s golf habit was decried as a display of elitist disconnect, but he intended it to be quite the opposite. The first public course in the United States—Van Cortlandt Golf Course in New York City—opened for play in 1895, and by Taft’s time in office, the game’s popularity had skyrocketed. He saw it as revolutionary and wanted the people to join him.
“One of the reasons Taft kept playing despite his advisors telling him not to,” Algeo says, “was that he thought rather than being a rich man’s game, that this showed him to be something of a common man.”
Taft pushed anyone listening to the burgeoning game. He urged state employees, prior to the opening of Washington, D.C.’s first public facility, to pursue the sport for relaxation, and even job efficiency.
“My advice…is to take it up. It will be a rest and recreation from business cares,” he told The American Golfer. “This applies particularly to the government clerks, and I sincerely hope that the proposed public golf course will soon be opened, and that men and women of sedentary habits here will be enabled to get this splendid form of exercise.”
Exercise seems ironic conversation fodder for a man who entered the White House at 354 pounds, but every one of them weighed on his ego, as did the media’s slights that stemmed from it. Always heavyset, Taft had excelled at wrestling while attending Yale; true health problems didn’t emerge until well into his political career.
He stood in stark contrast to his predecessor: Roosevelt, the aggressive progressive, versus Taft, the stodgy conservative. The man of the people versus a socialite standby. Roosevelt, the rugged outdoorsman—the very image of the American ideal. Taft, a pudgy golfer.
“I myself play tennis, but that game is a little more familiar,” Roosevelt wrote to Taft in 1908, offering campaign trail advice. “Besides, you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis, I am careful about that; photographs of me on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.”
Roosevelt’s penchant for the outdoors is not an exaggeration, but his dismissal of golf may be. Just a month prior to Taft’s round at Kebo, he reportedly teed it up with Teddy at Myopia.
Roosevelt built his own legend. Between African safaris and Amazonian voyages, he virtually erased his wealthy Manhattan upbringing in the eyes of the American voter. Roosevelt’s declarations against trusts were louder, even if Taft invoked the trust-busting Sherman Act more often across four years than Roosevelt had in eight.
Taft can’t even shake rumors he got stuck in that White House tub; it’s an entirely fictional tale created decades after his presidency. Roosevelt spoke loudly, and Taft spoke softly. It didn’t matter who carried the bigger stick.
Taft never was able to convince the public that his policies were moving forward, not backward. But he tried to persuade them that he took exercise seriously. Taft often staged photos when he golfed, as proof of his commitment to fitness.
And so there was a crowd awaiting his Kebo Valley foursome as it approached the sixth green, including a newspaper photographer.
The image preserving the round now hangs in the Kebo clubhouse. Taft faces the camera dutifully while friend and aide Archibald Butt looks off-camera, next to club president J.L. Ketherlinus. Club pro S.M. Liscomb stands in the background, the club’s neoclassical clubhouse behind him.
The foursome moved toward No. 7 after posing for the photo, and the crowd tagged along.
Taft was quite comfortable within his mediocre golf abilities. Algeo compares his approach to golf with his attitude on the campaign trail.
“I don’t think Taft was a really competitive golfer. That wasn’t his thing,” he says. “I don’t think he was a very competitive individual really at all. He was one of the presidents who didn’t even really want to be president. Kind of got hoodwinked into running in 1908 by Roosevelt.”
Taft’s history at Kebo and Myopia has permanently tainted his golfing legacy, yet there is considerable evidence suggesting he wasn’t all that bad. “He is a true sportsman,” The Seattle Star marvelled upon a visit during 1909. “I doubt if any Seattle girl, or boy, could throw the ball as accurately as the President knocks on with his golf sticks.” The Brooklyn Eagle also praised the president. “He puts [sic] extremely well,” it reported. “Apparently he never slices, and his straight play is varied only occasionally by a bit of a pull.”
The Eagle article covered a round where Taft played with Chevy Chase member Allan Lard during a matchplay event against Vice President James Sherman and Walter Travis. The paper reported scores for the other three players, and acknowledged Taft’s had not been made public. All they could surmise was that he must have shot below Sherman’s 116 in order to win the match.
Expectations, and the fear of disappointing them, carry thematically across Taft’s biography. His father, Alphonso, had served as attorney general under Ulysses S. Grant, and his mother, Louise, was active in promoting suffragist causes. “Well enough” was frowned upon; placing second at Yale was reportedly a disappointment, as elder brother Peter had topped his own class.
“Alphonso’s dauntingly high expectations, combined with a habit of withholding parental approval when his son failed to meet them, created a lifelong anxiety in Will that he expressed repeatedly in family letters,” writes legal historian Jeffrey Rosen in his biography of Taft. “This pattern would continue when Will faced similarly conditional displays of approval from his demanding wife and from his political mentor Theodore Roosevelt.”
Taft won the White House, which should have satisfied the family’s demands. He also ensured his wife, Nellie, could enjoy her silver wedding anniversary in the same elaborate fashion as Rutherford B. Hayes, whose White House wedding party she had attended as a girl.
Taft was the president of the United States. He could have chipped backward out of Kebo’s No. 7 bunker. He could have picked the ball up and thrown it to the green. He could have made a laugh out of it.
But that wouldn’t have been presidential.
Now that the crowd had followed him from the sixth green, he needed to be better than “well enough.” He couldn’t help himself with a drop. The people wanted their president to be honest, as committed to constitutional order on the golf course as he was in the Oval Office. He couldn’t play backward. That would be cowardice. The people wanted a heroic president, facing down mountainous foes, like Roosevelt riding gloriously up San Juan Hill.
Taft hit into the wall of the colossal bunker, and it rolled back. The crowd watched awkwardly as he lobbed upward into the fir trees. Again, again and again.
He never wanted this. The presidency, the pressure, the petty battles of Ballinger-Pinchot, the newspaper editorials, the eyes of the crowd as he turned No. 7’s sand floor into a minefield.
One blessed shot finally cleared the lip of the monstrous hazard. Common belief at Kebo holds Taft took his final approach shot from 50 yards and plainly two-putted. He unceremoniously walked toward the No. 8 tee, and the crowd made its way back to the clubhouse.
Taft took a considerable hiatus between Kebo Valley and his next round. It wasn’t that his pride had been hurt. A New York Times story published the day after its initial Bar Harbor coverage reported that Taft “strained” his ankle “climbing a steep, grassy slope leading to one of the greens,” perhaps adding further context for his travails at No. 7. He returned to the fairways the following March, at Augusta Country Club, and the papers were again at his throat for “neglecting” the pardon case of banker Charles Morse, who was suffering from nephritis while imprisoned. (When Taft pardoned the dying man, investigators found the banker had faked the symptoms by drinking soap suds. The papers pilloried Taft yet again.)
By the time election season rolled around in 1912, Taft was speaking out against Roosevelt’s extreme populist rhetoric, but otherwise leading a facsimile of a campaign.
“I guess when it comes to him running in 1912, I think the best word is ‘ambivalent,’” Algeo says. “He did play a lot of golf in 1912.…I think it’s dangerous to play psychologist with these, but I think he took a lot of comfort in the game.”
Taft returned home for the election, played a round at Cincinnati Country Club, went to cast his vote and reviewed the results as they came in. Woodrow Wilson would take 40 states, including Taft’s Ohio. Roosevelt, running as a wildcat third-party candidate, took six, and the Republican Party down with him. Taft won Utah and Vermont.
Taft went to bed feeling the weight, or perhaps the release, of a massive political defeat.
He woke the next morning and played another round of golf.