“When Travis Played the President”


President Taft

President Taft

As we welcome a new golfer-President, it should be remembered that William Howard Taft, our first true golfing President, became the 27th leader of our country March 4, 1909, one hundred years ago. Taft began playing golf in 1896 and was the first President of the Cincinnati Golf Club before going to Washington. While President of the United States, Taft often played golf with Walter J. Travis, founder of the magazine “The American Golfer” and for many years a very fine amateur golfer.

This is how Travis, in the June 1909 issue of his magazine, described the play of Taft,

“If the President will pardon me, I do not really think he would have much chance of qualifying in one of our amateur championships, but for all that he plays a very sound game, one free from bad faults of any kind … far better than the average ‘duffer,’ both in style and results.”

Travis goes on to write that, “Taft, in his modesty, some little time ago described his game as being of the bumble-puppy order.” Travis disagreed saying that the President “has nothing to ‘unlearn’ or correct and needs only some steady practice to develop a strong game.” Don’t we all!

Travis and Taft were sometimes partners in four-ball and best-ball matches. Apparently they played matches against each other as well. In fact, they were immortalized as being opponents in a poem called “A New Ballad of Chevy Chase,” by a poet who signed with only his initials “J McC T.” The poem also appeared in the June 1909 issue of “The American Golfer.”

The contest took place at the Chevy Chase Club course, the President’s home course “even for some years…before” taking office.”

“The name “Chevy Chase” came from the British Isles, where a famous battle was fought between Lord Douglas and Earl Percy on the border line between England and Scotland. Just after the District of Columbia was ceded to the federal government by the State of Maryland, it was found that a certain farm was on the border line of Maryland and the District, so the owner of the land called his homestead and plantation “Chevy Chase,” after the “Chevy Chace” of the ancient ballad.” (“The American Golfer” June 1909)

There were actually two ancient Ballads of Chevy Chase, the first one written in the 1430’s and the second in the 1620’s. The battle was a bloody one. According to the second ballad thirty five hundred combatants began the fight and only 108 survived. This ballad begins,

God prosper long our noble king,
Our lives and safeties all!
A woeful hunting once there did
In Chevy Chase befall.

Later on it tells of the deaths of the two principals, the Scottish Earl of Douglas, and the English Earl of Northumberland, Lord Percy.

A knight among the Scots there was
Who saw Earl Douglas die;
Who straight in wrath did vow revenge
Upon the Lord Percy:

Sir Hugh Montgomery was he called,
Who, with a spear full bright,
Well mounted on a gallant steed,
Ran fiercely through the fight;

And past the English archers all,
Without all dread or fear,
And through Earl Percy’s body then
He thrust his hateful spear.

The match between Travis and Taft as told in the “New Ballad” did not have quite the same drama. Never the less, the modern poet told his story with suitable gusto. Notice that he even manages to bring Percy and Douglas into his tale.

By J. McC. T.

When Travis played the President
At ancient Chevy Chase
A stern and solemn glory lit
His Excellency’s face:
And all the fields were still as death,
And all the birdies held their breath,-
Lay on Macduff, lay on Macbeth,
The fighters took their place.

The wizard swung his hickory rod
And winged a mighty stroke.
“I’ll surely make him play the odd,”
The English Champion spoke.
And o’er the sand pit down the hill,
Like salmon running in a rill,
Past buttercup and daffodil,
The bounding ball then broke.

Our ruler of the Philippines,
Of Washington, D. C,
Was undismayed and boldly played
With style and manner free:
As from a Dreadnought, sturdy craft,
When twelve-inch guns roar fore and aft
Smote by the fist of Golfer Taft,
The blithe ball left the tee.

I shall not sing all manly deeds
Done on that doughty day;
The mighty shots made from high weeds,
The strenuous brassey play;
Long putts that filled the brimming cup,
And keen approaches running up-
No one was then a “bumble-pup”
On that triumphal way.

God bless you, Mr. President!
And bring you sportsman’s luck;
Keen eye, big heart and happiness
And all the gifts of Pluck
And on the fields of Chevy Chase
May all the deeds of Scottish Race,
Of Percy and of Douglas grace
Your contests, nip and tuck.

And now we have the possibility of “A New New Ballad of Chevy Chase” featuring Tiger Woods and President Obama!


  1. I know Obama is going to be playing with Tiger Woods, but I’m not sure that other than that he qualifies as a golfer. He probably golfs like he bowls. Much better on the basketball court, I hear.

  2. Do you think Tiger would have to drop a couple of shots to keep Obama sweet? I suppose he should take a look at Micheal Jordan :-).


  1. […] When President Obama first took office, I wrote a Post, “When Travis Played the President,” about a golf match at the Chevy Chase Club course in Maryland between Walter J. Travis and President Taft. (See […]

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