As the resident professional golfer at The Vineyard in Martha’s Vineyard, Gene Mulak had it made — a picture-perfect golf club in a beautiful part of the country at his disposal, the only house on the course and, now, in August 2009, the opportunity to host President Barack Obama for a round.
But as Mulak soon discovered, hosting the commander in chief at a golf club was anything but straightforward. As Obama’s entourage took over the 235-acre site, Mulak found himself mesmerized by the scale of the “mind-blowing operation.”
“The local police are there, the state police are there and, of course, there are Secret Service agents by the dozen. Suddenly, the whole place is swarming with security,” he said. “Yes it’s an honor hosting the president but it’s also a bit of an inconvenience.”
But for Mulak’s wife, Peggy, the visit was more than an “inconvenience.”
As she wandered on to the back porch to beat her rugs clean that morning, she was met by a swarm of armed Secret Service agents, wielding their firearms and commanding her to stop what she was doing.
“They were springing out from behind trees and bushes,” recalled Mulak. “Scared the s–t out of her.”
For most players, playing a round of golf is a simple procedure. You make your booking, throw the clubs in the trunk and then turn up on the first tee. But it’s a very different process when the president of the United States plays.
Sixteen of the last 18 presidents have golfed, with some playing very little (like Ronald Reagan) and others managing to squeeze in over 800 rounds during two terms in office (such as Dwight D. Eisenhower). Famous for playing every Wednesday and Saturday, Democrats credited the Republican Eisenhower with introducing the “36-hole working week” and, in 1954, he became the first president to install a putting green on the grounds of the White House. Donald Trump, meanwhile, not only plays the game — a lot — but he also owns 17 golf clubs around the world, including 12 in the United States. Website TrumpGolfCount.com reports that the president has played 271 times since he took office in January 2017, at an estimated cost to the US taxpayer of $139 million. Some of those rounds have been with sports stars like Brett Favre and professional golfers like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
But a presidential round of golf is always a complex operation, irrespective of who is in the Oval Office.
“Golf courses are wide open spaces and that makes them inherently more difficult to secure,” said Ronald Kessel, author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.”
“That’s why the White House rarely announces any of the president’s rounds of golf in advance — the element of surprise works in their favor.”
The first golfing president was William Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913, and the security levels have increased exponentially over time.
Today, the operation swings into action the moment the president decides he wants to tee it up and where. White House staff will notify the Secret Service, who then begin liaising with all relevant law-enforcement agencies, the local and state police and any agents already based in the vicinity of the club in question.
If the course is located on a coast then the Marines will also be alerted, as will the Coast Guard and, occasionally, the Navy as well. If the local police have a marine patrol, they’re informed, too.
Consideration is also given to who the president is playing with. It might be a movie star or a famous golfer like Woods with their own security detail who need to be briefed. It could also be another country’s leader, which brings a whole new threat level to the round.
“Say the president was playing with the British prime minister and 24 hours earlier he had ordered a controversial attack somewhere,” said Gary Byrne, a former Secret Service officer for Bill Clinton. “Straight away, the president becomes even more of a target when he steps on the first tee. All of these things have to be thought about long before the president gets the driver out of the bag.”
Regardless of who is playing the president, a motorcade is organized, as is a helicopter, with backups often on standby should anything go wrong with them. At the same time, an advance team will already be on its way to the golf course to assess the location for risks. First, they will determine if it’s actually possible for the president to play.
“There are a lot of golf courses that don’t want the president to play at their courses because of the disruption it causes to their members,” said Dan Emmett, who spent 21 years as a Secret Service agent with both Bushes and with Bill Clinton — and who also wrote a book about his experiences, “Within Arm’s Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service.”
If the president wants to play on a new course, then agents usually visit the club a week to 10 days beforehand.
“The problems come when the Pres wants to play on a golf course that nobody knows but, you know, you can’t say ‘no’ to the Pres,” Byrne said.
The advance team scans the golf course to ensure there’s adequate cellphone coverage in the area and counter-snipers assess the threats, earmarking the elevated spots where they need to be positioned. A drone operator also surveys the area, while sniffer dogs sweep the clubhouse and golf course for explosives, and all club members are asked to provide their Social Security numbers for background checks. (According to Byrne, members almost always comply.)
A tee time is booked for the president, ensuring that there are no players ahead or behind him within two holes. The advance team rents faster golf carts for the president and his entourage — they need ones that travel at 19 mph rather than the standard maximum speed of 14 mph so they can make a slightly quicker getaway.
Before the president takes to the first tee, a medical team will also need to be in place, “not just in case the president drops dead,” added Byrne, “but if an agent falls ill, too. We’ve had people with allergies to bee stings in the past so we’ve needed the medics there for them, too.”
You can’t be too careful because you can hide a lot of s–t in a golf bag.
– ex Secret Service agent Gary Byrne
When the president finally arrives in his armored limo and takes to the first tee, he is the central point of an intricate network of protection that extends to all corners of the golf course. Imagine him as a small dot with an immediate ring of up to 12 Secret Service agents around him, all armed with Glock pistols, as well as medics and a couple of uniformed officers carrying metal detectors. Next will be a wider circle of agents, or “post-standers,” who form another barrier around the golf course (including counter-snipers carrying precision rifles), before another unit on the outer perimeter ensures that certain areas — like access roads and emergency exits — are not breached.
The president will also be accompanied by a military aide, carrying the briefcase containing the nuclear codes — the so-called “nuclear football.” He’s not always in close proximity but he will be on the golf course and in direct contact and can be with the president within moments.
“It’s not like there’s a big red button in the case to launch missiles,” said Byrne. “Put simply, it’s a fancy radio, a communications system with the Pentagon that the president can use when there’s an impending threat.”
If you happen to be on the golf course at the same time as the president it’s likely you will be frisked by armed Secret Service agents, demanding to screen your golf bag with handheld magnetometers.
“It might make that next shot a little shakier but it’s something we have to do,” said Byrne. “And if they refuse then we just tell them they’re leaving and it’s not up for debate.
“You can’t be too careful because you can hide a lot of s–t in a golf bag,” he added.
And if you’re caught in the group behind the president it’s probably best not to ask if you can play through.
“Not advisable,” Byrne added.
With all this advance vetting, it helps if the president sticks to golf clubs he uses regularly or, in the case of Trump, one that he actually owns.
Typically, presidents play at courses like the Army Navy Country Club, across the Potomac River from Washington in Arlington, Va., especially when they want to play on short notice, and everything can be arranged to accommodate them in as little as six or seven hours.
“Obviously, the best way is to plan weeks in advance but because many presidents like to play a lot of golf it can also be done with almost no notice, too,” Byrne explained. “And that can be a good thing from the Secret Service’s point of view because it doesn’t give an enemy any time to plan either.”
Put simply, you just can’t avoid the Secret Service. “They are just everywhere and they stand out like sore thumbs,” recalled Mulak. “They all wear khaki Dockers and an untucked Tommy Bahama shirt. And sunglasses. Can’t forget the sunglasses.
“I never quite got that. It’s like the motorcade. If you want the president to blend in, just tell him to turn his hat round the wrong way and give him a Jeep Wrangler instead.”
In 2009, animal-rights group PETA targeted Mulak’s club as a protest site ahead of a visit from then-President Obama. The Vineyard was one of only two all-organic golf clubs in the United States, but the lack of synthetic pesticides and herbicides on the course meant the grounds were often targeted by skunks who dug up turf to find grubs underneath.
Walter “the Skunk Man” solved that problem.
“It was Walter’s job to eradicate the skunks and he would trap them in cages before lowering them into a barrel of water and drowning them,” explained Mulak, now the head professional at Silver Spring County Club in Fairfield County, Conn. “The White House communication staff received intelligence that PETA had found out about the methods the club was using to get rid of the skunks and were planning on protesting when the president came to play.
“I joked that it was a bit of a stink over nothing but literally nobody from the White House or the Secret Service laughed. You could have heard a pin drop. In the end, the protest never happened.”
It’s testament to the job of the Secret Service that these rounds almost always pass without incident. The last major breach happened as far back as 1983 during Ronald Reagan’s visit to Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. Local man Charlie Harris crashed his truck through the gates of the club and, armed with a .38 caliber revolver, took seven people hostage in the club shop, demanding to talk to the president. (Harris had passed the club earlier that day and was tipped off by a county deputy that the president would be playing.) He was later jailed for five years.
But protecting the president is rarely exciting for the agents in attendance, said Don Van Natta Jr., who played golf with former President Clinton in August 2002 at The Golf Club of Purchase, NY. (Ex-presidents are protected by a sizeable Secret Service presence whenever they play for the rest of their lives, though not with motorcades and helicopters.)
“We were flanked, front ways and behind, by grim, sunglasses-wearing Secret Service agents riding a respectfully safe distance from us,” said Van Natta Jr., author of “First Off The Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush.”
“The Secret Service agents said nothing and looked extremely bored and gave off a vibe that there was anywhere else in the world they’d rather be than with us.”
Byrne, a non-golfer, agrees.
“It can be exhilarating but it can be boring, too,” he said. “I preferred it when it was more last minute, when the adrenaline kicked in.”
But, as Emmett explained, that’s just the job they sign up for.
“The Secret Service are there to protect the life and the office of the presidency — they’re not there to be his friend, or golf partner,” he concludes. “They don’t round out a foursome.”
Additional reporting by Colleen McPolin