As the Master’s Tournament gets underway at Augusta National Golf Club this week, one of the icons of the course again will not be there. The famed Eisenhower Tree suffered extensive damage from an ice storm in the winter of 2014 and was removed shortly thereafter. Approximately 65 feet high and 90 years old when cut down, the native loblolly pine tree, named for President Dwight Eisenhower, stood about 210 yards down on the left side of hole no. 17.
Ike was a passionate golfer and became a member of Augusta National in 1948. The tree was named for Eisenhower because of his inability to avoid hitting it when playing the hole. As a result Ike quickly became obsessed with the tree.
As Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Ike had led millions of soldiers in what he called “the Great Crusade” to defeat Nazi Germany. In 1956, he waged what might be called his “golf crusade.” He loved everything about Augusta—except that tree. But for the life of him, he couldn’t defeat this lone wooden soldier. At the December 1956 Club meeting, he petitioned to have the tree cut down, something that was never going to happen. Club chairman Cliff Roberts claimed later that he quickly adjourned the meeting to avoid the issue or embarrassing the president of the United States. In 1965, Ike half-jokingly confided to a golfing buddy that he wanted to use “about one half stick of TNT” to “take the damn thing down.” In the end, the tree bested the greatest military commander of the 20th century.
After the ice storm in 2014, Augusta National determined that the Eisenhower Tree needed to be removed. The man was so closely associated with the tree that the club had a cross-section of it sent to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, where it is on display just off the lobby.
Historian Catherine Lewis, in “Don’t Ask What I Shot”: How Eisenhower’s Love of Golf Helped Shape 1950s America (2007), gives us a cultural history that documents Ike’s love of the game. Eisenhower sought refuge in the sport from the stresses of the presidency, though he never totally left the job behind. How could he? He played more than 800 rounds during his 8 years in office. He tried to practice his short game every day. Since he couldn’t go to a course to do so, the United States Golf Association paid to install a putting green at the White House.
Unlike some occupants of the White House, according to Lewis, Ike never had a problem with being photographed playing the game (though he did with having his scores reported). Those photos were often featured on the front page of newspapers, even if they had nothing to do with the accompanying story. Critics seized on the frequency with which he played as evidence that he cared more about his golf score than he did the job. Political cartoonists frequently portrayed Ike on the golf course as well, which only added to that impression. It was only after historians could access his administration’s records that it was revealed how engaged he was as president; it was not uncommon to have meetings and make major decisions while playing.
Lewis also examines the issue of Ike playing a sport associated with white elites in the Deep South at a segregated club. This placed him in an odd situation as the civil rights movement became a major issue during his second term. She devotes half a chapter exclusively to Ike and civil rights. His friends and playing partners were no different from him in attitude and beliefs about race. His favorite caddy may have been African American, but “Ike believed that fair access and economic opportunity did not necessarily mean social equality, indicating that his views on race, like the majority of white Americans, were still rooted in the nineteenth century.” Eisenhower reluctantly dealt with civil rights. When the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock came to a head in 1957, “Ike was accused of running the presidency from a golf course,” writes Lewis. “A brief look at his September calendar that year shows that this was in fact the case.” He complained about leaving a golfing vacation to return to the White House to address the nation about the Little Rock crisis. While she notes that in 1953 “Ike began a crusade to break 90 at Augusta National,” I would argue that he was all for leading crusades, even one against a tree, but was unwilling to lead one against desegregation of the South.
The larger purpose of “Don’t Ask What I Shot” is to look at how the golf-obsessed president transformed a sport associated with the wealthy and elite into one for the middle class. Ike came from a hardscrabble background, growing up in Abilene, Kansas, at the dawn of the 20th century. He took up the game while a young officer in the U.S. Army in the 1920s, and during World War II was even photographed in full uniform swinging a club. His election to the White House in 1952 and his membership at Augusta elevated interest in sport. He was an immensely popular president, and that popularity translated into tens of thousands of men and women taking up the game he was so often photographed playing.
His membership at Augusta shown a spotlight on the Masters Tournament, too. In 1953, for the first Masters following Ike’s election, tournament officials braced for “a tremendous crowd, far above the 15,000 that attended” the year before. Ike didn’t want to interfere with the tournament by attending it but instead would visit the week after the tournament ended. The success of a young, charismatic Arnold Palmer at the Masters in 1958 and again in 1960, along with Ike’s association with the club and the attention his vacations there garnered, cemented the tournament’s place as one of the major events in golf after 1960.
Ike and golf have been thoroughly covered by authors. There’s Lewis’s book, which is solid; there’s David Sowell’s Eisenhower and Golf: A President at Play (2007), which has the wrong year for when Ike spoke up at the club meeting; and there’s also The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency (2009), by John Sayle Watterson, which has a chapter on Ike. Virtually every biography of the man touches on the subject, too. And there are any number of books on the history of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament that mention Eisenhower the golfer. But there will always be only one Eisenhower Tree.