As president, golf provided George H.W. Bush with a welcome diversion from the daily pressure. Now 90, he continues giving back through the game he loves.By Wayne Mills
Whether he was ambassador, C.I.A. director, vice-president or even the president of the United States, George H.W. Bush always found time to retreat to the seaside community of Kennebunkport, Maine.
This is where he stoked his passion for golf. It is where, even today at age 90, he continues to practice what he has long preached about community service.
“Maine is where our family gathers,” Bush said recently in an exclusive interview with New England Golf & Leisure. “Our family history here does encompass golf, but it is even broader than that. We love fishing, tennis, horseshoes and just spending time together by the sea. Maine is our anchor to windward.”
During his presidency, golf was a safe haven, a momentary respite from the pressures of holding the most powerful office in the world.
“There really aren’t words to describe it,” he said when asked to explain the joy he has received playing golf. “How do you describe the beauty of nature combined with the beauty of true friends in a test of skill?”
Golf has been a major part of Bush’s Maine life, due in part to his involvement with the annual George H.W. Bush Celebrity Golf Classic, held each year at Cape Arundel Golf Club. Bush has served as honorary chairman for the past 12 years for the tournament, which benefits Gary’s House, a home away from home for families of patients at Mercy Hospital in Portland.
The tournament is held each June and features sports legends, television personalities and golfers from around the country who come to Kennebunkport to support Bush and his charitable involvement. It has raised nearly $2 million since inception. Past participants have included Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, Dave Cowens, Ray Bourque Jim Lonborg and Luis Tiant.
Bush made the call to public and community service a centerpiece of his presidency, creating the Points of Light Foundation, which laid the groundwork for a volunteer movement that has been built upon by every succeeding president.
It remains one of his proudest achievements.
“I was thrilled when a year ago President Obama invited 5,000 Daily Point of Light [volunteers] to the White House,” he said. “When we started that tradition 25 years ago I never dreamed we would still be recognizing our country’s wonderful volunteers.”
Golf has long been in Bush’s blood. His grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was president of the United States Golf Association and inspired the Walker Cup, a biennial match for amateurs pitting the United States against Great Britain and Ireland. His father, Prescott Bush, was also USGA president and helped establish the USGA Museum and Archives. Through the years Bush has been in attendance to support many major golf events, most notably the Ryder Cup and the President’s Cup matches.
“My mother and father, who were both accomplished golfers, did far more to influence who I was, but the traditions of golf helped to reinforce those ideals of personal honesty, overcoming adversity, and striving for excellence,” he said. “No other game is like it in that regard.”
He isn’t sure when he first picked up a golf club, but it inspired a life-long love for the game.
“At age 90, I don’t remember what I had for breakfast,” he joked. “But it had to be my dad who introduced me to the game. My grandfathers and uncles maybe had something to do with it as well, but playing golf with my dad was always special. My father raised my awareness of the game, to be sure, but sadly there was a genetic power outage in my case when it came to excellence in play.”
Bush’s service to his country also started at a young age. He joined the Navy during World War II at 18 after graduating from Phillips Andover Academy and just before his 19th birthday became the youngest fighter pilot in U.S. history.
He served as a combat pilot in the war, flying carrier-based torpedo bomber aircraft on 58 missions. He had a brush with death when his plane was hit during a bombing run in the Pacific. After escaping the burning plane, he was rescued by a U.S. Navy submarine. Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
He went on to serve as a U.S. Representative from Texas, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal, U.S. envoy to China, director of the C.I.A and vice president under Ronald Reagan before being elected president in 1988.
“There is no higher honor than to serve free men and women, no greater privilege than to labor in government beneath the Great Seal of the United States and the American flag,” he said. “[But] the Government is here to serve; it cannot replace individual service. Reach out and lend a hand. Ours should be a nation characterized by conspicuous compassion, generosity that is overflowing and abundant.”
That attitude helped spawn the charity tournament in his name. In 1989, 18-year-old Gary Pike was diagnosed with cancer. He endured many long, painful days of treatment at Mercy Hospital and in Boston. For two years until his death, his mother, Trudy, refused to leave his side, sleeping on couches and floors.
Even though Gary knew he was dying it broke his heart to see his mother live like that. He made her promise on his deathbed that she would establish a place where families would have somewhere close to stay while their loved ones battled illness.
Gary’s House opened in 1998 in an elegant Federal-style brick home in Portland. It has hosted people from all over the world and stands as a testament to a young man who dreamed of making life better for others while fighting to save his own.
The golf tournament was the brainchild of Ken Raynor, the head professional at Cape Arundel Golf Club. Raynor, who has sat on the board of directors of Gary’s House since its inception, is still moved by the cause.
“Gary lost his life but made the world a little better for many others. All the people that get to stay there are very grateful,” he said. “I am proud to be involved and do what I can.”
Bush and Raynor have known each other for 30 years. Raynor likes to point out that he “has played more golf with any sitting and past president than any other PGA pro.
“He has treated me like one of the family and been like a second father to me,” he said.
To honor his old friend, Raynor named the clubhouse “41.”
Although they have played often, it has usually been very quickly. Bush’s pace of play on the golf course is legendary.
“Our family has never been one for throwing too many grass clippings to test the breeze,” he said. “As president, I needed and wanted the diversion, but I also didn’t think I could or should afford the luxury of four or five hours on the course.”
Recalled Raynor, “We once played 18 holes in one hour, 24 minutes.”
It’s been said that Americans would be best served choosing their president if they could watch each candidate on the golf course, because golf reveals a person’s true character, how he or she handles success and adversity. To that suggestion, Bush could only laugh at himself.
“If you’ve ever seen me play,” he said, “you’ll understand why my response is ‘No comment.’”
Those interested in participating in the George H.W. Bush Cape Arundel Celebrity Classic or attending the Point of Light Gala should call (207) 229-3866 or visit GeorgeBushCelebrityGolf.org.
Article published in New England Golf & Leisure magazine’s fall 2014 issue.