He stayed. He prayed. Mostly, he played.
Dwight David Eisenhower became acquainted with Augusta National Golf Club, and Augusta, after serving as supreme commander of the Allied Forces in World War II and before he became the 34th president of the United States.
The retired five-star general visited Augusta in April 1948 for nearly two weeks at the urging of Masters Tournament chairman Clifford Roberts and club member William Robinson. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, were smitten with the club. Roberts and the club’s membership liked Ike, too.
Eisenhower told reporters that it was his “best vacation in years,” and he stayed in Bobby Jones’ cabin but did not get to meet the legendary amateur during his initial visit. He played golf during the day and bridge at night. Six months later, Eisenhower became a member of the private club.
“When departure time arrived, I am sure that Mamie and Ike, and all the club members present, knew full well that the initial visit had brought about a deep feeling of kinship between the Eisenhowers and the Augusta National,” Roberts wrote in The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club.
Eisenhower made 45 trips to Augusta – five before he became president, 29 while president and 11 after his last term – and many were for a week or longer. He never attended the Masters, but he frequently timed his trips to come right after the tournament. He also enjoyed spending time at the club during holidays, particularly Thanksgiving.
While Eisenhower rarely ventured away from Augusta National during his visits, the exception was to attend church. He and Mamie were frequent visitors at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church on Walton Way, and records show he attended services 18 times at Reid during his presidency.
While Eisenhower enjoyed his visits to Augusta, the city and its people genuinely liked him, too. They would line the streets to get a glimpse when he came, and if word leaked about his arrival or departure, they would show up at the airport to see him.
“There would be huge crowds,” said Robert Symms, a former photographer who was often assigned to cover the president’s visits. “People lined up along the fence (at the airport).”
Eisenhower would travel from the airport to Augusta National in a black limousine, and it was common for people to line the route so they could get a glimpse.
One of them was Hattie Fishburne, the mother of actor Laurence Fishburne.
“We would go out to Tobacco Road to see the president coming in,” said Fishburne, who was a teacher at Levi White Elementary at the time. “We’d see a long black limousine, a man with a ‘page boy’ hat, and we were just so excited.”
Years later, her son took her to Washington to see a “real sitting president.” Fishburne, who attended Augusta schools and graduated from Paine College, still treasures a picture of her with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“I think it’s always been that you get excited with the president,” said Fishburne, who now lives in Los Angeles. “He’s the biggest guy in the world. It means a lot.”
Cyndy Ward remembers her grandparents taking her to the airport to see the president.
“They used to take us when he would come in. It’s not like now,” said Ward, who grew up in Augusta but now lives in Sandersville, Ga. “You could see him up close.”
Ward, 63, even received a hug from Eisenhower during an Easter egg hunt near a downtown restaurant.
As the postwar economy began to boom in the 1950s and Americans had more leisure time and income, Eisenhower was comfortable with taking time to play golf. He played more than 800 rounds during his two terms as president, and a good many came in Augusta. He even installed a putting green on the White House lawn.
As president, Eisenhower dealt with issues from the heating up of the Cold War to ending school desegregation. He frequently sought his favorite refuge, Augusta National.
There he could play golf, fish and play cards with powerful men with similar political views. In return, his impact on the club was significant: A number of landmarks around the club bear his name, and it was he who suggested the spot for a fish pond that eventually became part of the Par-3 Course.
Though he was a mediocre golfer at best – a knee injury during his football days at West Point hindered his swing– he was enthusiastic about the game.
Once, during a match involving Roberts, Eisenhower’s tee shot at the par-3 12th came up short and rolled down to a sand bar next to Rae’s Creek.
Roberts insisted he play the ball from there, and the president sank to his knees in quicksand. He had to be rescued by two Secret Service agents, according to David Owen’s book The Making of the Masters.
Even though the president was one of the most powerful men in the world, at Augusta National Eisenhower was not in charge. That was never clearer than in December 1956 when he attended the club’s annual meeting with a certain tree on the 17th hole on his mind.
“Cliff was a close-mouthed person, and what he said went,” said longtime Augusta resident Carlton “Beanie” Morris. “He didn’t take no foolishness off anybody, even Ike. I understand that Ike went to a bunch of people and asked him to take the tree down because it was bothering him. He would slice the ball, and about half the time it didn’t slice. He was right under the tree or short of it. He didn’t have much chance to get to the green.
“They had a board meeting and two or three members brought it up,” Morris said. “After about the second one, Clifford said he wasn’t going to change his mind. As far as I know it never came up again. He didn’t take the tree down.”
Eisenhower was good-natured in defeat. His visits to the club continued after his presidency, and the agenda was nearly always the same: Do some work in his office in the morning, hit some practice balls and play in a foursome that usually included Roberts and one of the club pros. That was usually followed by dinner and a night of playing bridge.
In his memoirs, he explained why he held dear his time at Augusta National.
“It is almost impossible for me to describe how valuable their friendship was to me,” Eisenhower wrote of Augusta National’s members in Mandate for Change, 1953-56: The White House Years. “Any person enjoys his or her friends; a president needs them, perhaps more intensely at times than anything else.”