The world knows Billy Graham for his enormously successful evangelistic career. But when he wasn’t preaching to the millions, Graham indulged in his great leisure time passion — golf.
Terry Whalin, author of “Billy Graham: America’s Greatest Evangelist,” wrote that, “Golf has often given Billy a means to relax in an informal setting with well-known people.”
Well-known indeed. Graham golfed with many of the U.S. presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, etc.
Author Ken Garfield, mentioning Graham and Ronald Reagan, wrote, “Their friendship dates back to the 1950s—golf brought them together, of course.”
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During a round of golf with Lyndon Johnson, the president complimented Graham on his yellow pigskin golf shoes. Graham’s unexpected response was to send Johnson six pairs of them.
In the 1970s, Graham once played in a foursome that included President Gerald Ford and Jack Nicklaus.
Golf was something special to Billy Graham. For example, in 1968 Billy Graham wrote a tract called “God and Golf.”
"For many years, I played golf,” wrote Graham. “I enjoyed the game because it is so similar to the game of life, with its many obstacles, struggles, victories, conflicts, and blessings.”
As biographer Marshall Frady wrote of him in his book "Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness": "It was to the mown groomed fairways of golf courses that he repaired, the carpeted locker rooms of country clubs where he could often be found, standing in his shorts, discoursing to ball-bearing manufacturers and textile-mill magnates on the exhilarations of prolonged Bible study."
Frady also notes that when Graham was made honorary chaplain of Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte, N.C., he quipped, “The Apostle Paul, you know, said, ‘I have finished the course,’” and further expounded, “There’s no game which opens a man’s personal life like golf. It illustrates an individual’s honesty, integrity, intelligence, and character. Golf demands control of temper, concentration, and integrity. You can tell a lot about a person by playing a round of golf with him. In golf, you cope with the same troubles as you do in life.”
Even during his crusades, according to Frady, Graham would return from playing nine holes to dictate that evening’s sermon.
Graham even exclaimed about Heaven, “Boy, I sure hope they have a golf course up there!”
Quoted in Ken Garfield’s book “Billy Graham: A Life in Pictures,” Graham said, “Somebody once asked me, ‘Will there be golf courses in heaven?’ I said, ‘If they’re necessary for our happiness, they’ll be there.’”
And so we pay tribute to Billy Graham — not in his role as beguiling global preacher, but rather as an avid, well-traveled golfer, a man who sliced and putted his way through many of the gently undulating landscapes that are the game's great fairways, from the original coastal “links land” golf courses of sand washed onto Scottish seashores, to the “parksland” courses found elsewhere in the world, all carefully designed, shaped and manicured by man and machine.
1. The Spot Where It All Began in 1937
Graham writes in his autobiography that in 1937 while attending Florida Bible Institute in the Tampa Bay community of Temple Terrace, Fla. (today's Florida College), he received his calling to be a preacher on the 18th green of the nearby Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, which is immediately in front of today's Sutton Hall.
In returning from a walk across the green, there were no golfers coming down the fairway, so Graham began to slow down. He then had his epiphany. He reportedly knelt on the green, eyes filled with tears, gazed upward and said, “All right, Lord! If you want me, you’ve got me!”
A small marker — seen in the photo above — now designates the spot of his conversion, and the Reverend Billy Graham Memorial Park can be found on the Hillsborough River directly east of that 18th green.
Later, in 1940, Graham transferred to Wheaton College. At a nearby golf course Graham happened to caddy one day for two wealthy Chicago businessmen who were so impressed by him they helped fund a year’s room, board, and tuition for him at a local seminary.
Over the next half-century, Graham would be part of many impressive golf foursomes including U.S. presidents, captains of industry, Hollywood stars, and foreign heads of state.
2. Graham and Clifford Barrows, 1950
Graham, at right in the above photo, was on a tour of New England when he took a day off and played golf at The Andover Country Club in Andover, Mass., on April 18, 1950. With him is his associate Clifford Barrows, who for many years was the music and program director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Southwestern Seminary President Russell H. Dilday was once asked to arrange a golf game and luncheon for Graham on a Monday during a Graham Crusade in Atlanta. Dilday realized that the best golf courses were closed on Mondays, so he asked famous golf pro Davis Love, Sr., to open the Atlanta Country Club just for Graham and the rest of his foursome. Love eagerly agreed, but Graham humbly asked to play at a public golf course instead and eat at a public cafeteria near his hotel, which they did.
3. Graham, Nixon, and Bobst Play NJ, 1956
In the above photo, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, right, stands with Graham, center, as pharmaceutical investor and philanthropist Elmer Bobst sets the ball for a round of golf, Aug. 30, 1956, at the Spring Lake, N.J., Gold and Country Club.
Graham first encountered Nixon in 1950. Graham had already met Nixon’s parents two years earlier in California at an evangelistic gathering. Author John Charles Pollock writes in his book “Billy Graham, Evangelist to the World” that Nixon and Graham played golf one afternoon in 1950 at the Burning Tree Golf Club near Washington, and that was the beginning of their friendship.
Graham saw the “loose side” of Nixon on the golf course, partly because of Graham’s close assistant, the Rev. Grady Baxter Wilson. As author Sam Wellman wrote, “When Grady golfed with Billy and the president, Nixon would needle Grady as ‘Greedy Grady’ because plump Grady was so deceptively good at golf. Nixon would pat Grady’s fat belly and say, ‘That tummy’s got to come down.’ Or he would grab Grady’s arm and crack, ‘Pray for me, I’m a backslider.’”
During Nixon’s first term in office, Graham was traveling in France and saw an opportunity to squeeze in a round of golf. Having neglected to bring his clubs on this trip, he found a pro shop at the course that rented him a set. Armed with the rented clubs, Graham proceeded to play one of the best rounds of his entire life. After the game, he returned the clubs to the pro shop and asked to purchase them, but the manager refused. Graham later casually mentioned the incident to Nixon and forgot about it. The following Christmas saw that set of clubs delivered to Graham at his home. Nixon had wielded the power of his presidency to get them for him.
4. Graham Plays Glasgow During a Scottish Tour, 1955
On March 9, 1955, Graham arrived in Glasgow on his first visit to Scotland. His six-week crusade drew 90,000 attendees to Hampden Park stadium and filled Kelvin Hall every night for six weeks.
After preaching to more than 2.5 million people and cajoling 50,000 Scots to come forward to be converted — not to mention a Good Friday BBC TV and radio broadcast with an audience second in size only to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation — Graham finally took in some golf near Glasgow on March 30, 1955, as seen in the photos above. He would return to Scotland in 1961 and 1991.
Note Graham’s golf cap. Pollock wrote in his book that Graham often wore a golf cap “to keep his hair straight when he rested.”
5. Billy Graham Takes On Victoria, Australia, 1959
Graham blasts out of sand trap on Riversdale golf course in Victoria, Australia, on March 4, 1959. Graham at the time was conducting religious crusades in various Australian cities.
6. A Kangaroo Trap on the Ninth Hole, 1959
Graham, right, and Tony Hutton, secretary of the Kooyonga Club, befriend a young kangaroo while playing golf in Adelaide, Australia, on May 25, 1959. Graham was in Adelaide to give two crusade addresses as he neared the end of his Australian visit.
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7. Graham Tees Off Near London, 1960
In the upper photo, Graham, having concluded his Berlin Crusade and still in his morning robe, practices his putt in his London hotel room on Oct. 2, 1960. Then, with a reporter and photographer in tow, he heads off to a golf course (lower two photos). According to biographer Marshall Frady, Graham was terrific at hitting long tee shots, but he had trouble putting. Someone who often played with him remembers he would complain, “I can’t putt, I just can’t putt, I’ve five-putted this green.”
As Graham told the Los Angeles Times in its Aug. 4, 1995, edition, “I’m afraid golf is one place where God doesn’t answer my prayers.”
8. A Kennedy Foursome, 1961
A mere four days before the presidential inauguration, we see posing outside the Kennedy oceanfront home a famous foursome getting ready to head out to a golf course in Palm Beach, Fla, on Jan. 16, 1961. Left to right are President-elect John F. Kennedy, Graham, Sen. George Smathers, and William Reynolds, future governor of Wisconsin.
Author David Aikman in “Billy Graham: His Life and Influence” writes that after this game, JFK drove Graham from the golf club back to his father’s house in his white Lincoln Continental convertible. He suddenly stopped the car and asked Graham whether he believed in the second coming of Christ and whether his own church, the Roman Catholic Church, believed in it too. (Graham assured him that it did.)
In his 1997 autobiography, Graham described a premonition regarding Kennedy’s assassination, which also, interestingly, involved golf.
“I unaccountably felt such a burden about the presidential visit to Dallas that I decided to phone our mutual friend, Senator [George] Smathers, to tell him I really wanted to talk to the president.”
Smathers was on the Senate floor, and unavailable, so Graham left a message with his secretary. The secretary said Smathers would call Graham, but he instead sent a telegram saying that President Kennedy would get in touch with Graham directly. Smathers thought Graham wanted to talk about the president’s invitation to another Florida golf game that weekend; the game was off, he said, and would have to be rescheduled. As for Kennedy, he never called.
Graham wrote, “But all I wanted to tell him and the president was one thing, ‘Don’t go to Texas!’”
Moreover, on the day of the assassination, Graham was playing golf with T.W. Wilson (father of Graham’s associate evangelist Grady Wilson), Lee Fisher, and Cliff Barrows at the local course in Black Mountain, N.C. “We had just teed off for the fifth hole right next to the road,” wrote Graham, “when Loren Bridges, manager of WFGW, the Christian radio station we owned there, drove up and shouted that the president had been shot.”
9. Playing the Dorado, 1962
In the photo above, Graham follows through after hitting a shot while playing golf at the Dorado Beach Resort in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 1962. (The resort is home to four championship golf courses, two of them — the East and West Courses, nestled in a former Rockefeller estate — were originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.) Graham had been vacationing there since Sept. 6. Graham was about to embark on a tour of Latin America beginning that weekend.
10. Graham Slicing His Way Through the 1960s
At right, Graham plays golf in January 1965 in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area of Florida. At left is a photo of Graham teeing off at an unspecified location on July 13, 1967, perhaps celebrating his return from the successful nine-day All-Britain Crusade where he was seen in 25 British cities on closed-circuit television, followed by meetings in Northern Italy and Yugoslavia. The center image is another 1960s photo of Graham once again engaging in his favorite pastime.
11. Putting Partners: Graham and Bob Hope, 1971
Comedian Bob Hope, left, takes a look as Graham lines up a putt during the Pro-Am play of the Byron Nelson Golf Classic Pro-Am in Dallas on May 6, 1971.
Hope once joked about finding Graham on his knees in a sand trap, as if his prayers might help him shoot par. In the Aug. 4, 1989, Chicago Tribune, Hope quipped, “I can’t stand playing golf with Billy Graham. He cheats. How can you play 18 holes when it only rains on you?”
Jay Dennis, writing in his book, “Leading with Billy Graham,” recounts T.W. Wilson, Graham, and Hope on a golf course. Graham and Hope had hit bad drives, their balls at the edge of the wood. Hope yelled to Graham, “Hey, Billy, help! I’m in trouble.”
Graham hit his ball, and although it wasn’t a good hit, it happened to hit the water, bounce off, and land on the green only about 4 feet from the hole. Graham won the hole.
That night Bob Hope said to an audience, “I played golf with Billy Graham today and he really taught me a lesson. His golf ball walked on water.”
12. Graham and Gerald Ford, 1974
Vice President Gerald Ford, left, and Graham talk before the start of their round of golf on May 29, 1974, at the Pro-Am at the Kemper Open in Charlotte, N.C.
Graham would also dispense helpful advice to professional golfers. In Bob McCullough’s “My Greatest Day in Golf,” Gary Player remembers one such incident that occurred after having spent two nights with Graham at his North Carolina home, just prior to playing the Augusta National.
"He said to me, one of the things you’ve got to realize to win Augusta is you’ve gotta have some adversity. And my goodness, he said, I don’t care if you win it or you don’t, you’re favored going into Augusta because you played so well at Wintertour. But even though you’re favored you’re going to have difficult times to encounter.
“And when I got that seven and that six (Player was up and down in the trap from the 72nd hole), I just thought of what Billy Graham said … and I was very strong going down the line.”
Fond as he was of golf, Billy Graham never allowed the game to rule his life. He knew what was really important. As he wrote in “Billy Graham Talks to Teenagers” (1958): "I’ve known the thrill of winning a tough ball game and of winning a golf match on the last hole. But to me the biggest thrill is to win the big one — the spiritual battle of life.”
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