Golf advocacy: John Boehner entertains, informs at GIS 2020

The former speaker of the House dispensed insider tales and advocacy tips in his address to GCSAA’s Grassroots Ambassadors.


Grassroots Ambassador Academy
More than 150 GCSAA Grassroots Ambassadors attended part one of Ambassador Academy on Tuesday at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center as part of GIS 2020. John Boehner, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the featured presenter. Photos by Andrew Hartsock

During a lengthy political career that peaked just two rungs below leader of the free world, John Boehner was frequently criticized by his own Republican party for being too liberal, and by Democrats for being too conservative.

But nobody ever questioned his love for the game of golf.

An avid golfer who says he has played in 49 states and at one time played 100 rounds a year, Boehner, who served as 53rd speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives before his resignation in 2015, addressed a standing-room-only crowd of GCSAA Grassroots Ambassadors during the first installment of Ambassador Academy, presented in partnership with AMVAC, on Tuesday at the 2020 Golf Industry Show.

He delivered on his pre-appearance promise: “I told you we were going to have fun here.”

Boehner spoke for nearly two hours in a talk show-style presentation with Michael Lee, GCSAA manager of government affairs, and delivered an entertaining — and sometimes scathing — commentary that covered topics ranging from his start in politics to the current political climate.

The session was limited to GCSAA Grassroots Ambassadors — association members who are paired with a local member of the U.S. Congress in order to advocate for the game of golf. To that end, Boehner, a right-handed golfer who putts left-handed and who carved out a career by similarly being able to work with those at both ends of the political spectrum, had several tips:

• Educate: “It’s not rocket science,” Boehner said. “People who lobby — which is what they’re asking you to do — what lobbyists do is, they educate. The biggest job you have to do is to educate. You have to educate people who have ears open to you, and they’ll only be open to you if you meet them, get to know them. … Whether it’s the local level or the county level or the state level, if you really want to be effective, you have to know who these people are.”

• Paint a picture. “The picture that needs to be made with this is what the issue is and why it’s important and why it’s important to that member (of Congress),” Boehner said. “Most members of Congress don’t play golf. Most members of Congress look at golf as the sport for rich people.”

• Be persistent. “You just gotta stay at it,” Boehner said. “Stay in touch with that member. If you get new information that updates what you talked about last time, it gives you an excuse to go see him, talk to him.”

• Show and tell: “Bring them out to the golf course. For most of them, this is going to be a new experience. Bring them out to the golf course and show them in a more vivid way what you’re talking about. Show them what you do and why these issues are important. Trust me. They’ll enjoy it.”

Boehner served as House speaker from January 2011 to October 2015, and described himself as among the last in an era of politicians who could reach across the aisle to achieve compromise.

He proved he’s willing to jab at both sides of the aisle Tuesday, when he lobbed barbs toward members of both political parties, though he left no doubt about his allegiance. At one point, he referred to “lefties.” “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to step on any toes,” Boehner said with a smile. “I am a conservative Republican ... but I’m not crazy.”

John Boehner golf

Right: GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans, left, visits with John Boehner, 53rd speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, before Boehner’s session with the association’s Grassroots Ambassadors.

As speaker of the House, Boehner technically was second in line for presidential succession. But he never aspired to be president.

“I never had that disease,” he said. “Some people have this disease — they want to be President. It’s very prevalent in the United States Senate.

“People who want to be president, it’s all about ego. Some of them are there for the right reasons, but it’s a miserable job. People said, ‘You’re second in line to be president.’ I prayed for Obama and Joe Biden every day.”

On more than one occasion during his career, the 70-year-old Boehner was asked about the presidency. He once responded to such a query from Jay Leno by saying, “I like to play golf. I like to cut my own grass. I drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. And I’m not giving that up to be president of the United States.”

Reminded of that statement Tuesday, Boehner affirmed the sentiment — especially the golf part.

“I’m here mostly because I love golf, and I love you guys, because you’re the guys who get it done,” said Boehner, who lives off the 10th hole of Wetherington Golf and Country Club in West Chester, Ohio, and more than once gave a nod (and a couple of good-natured jabs) to its superintendent, Tim Kelley, a 25-year GCSAA member.

“I’ve played a lot of golf courses over the years. You guys are the unsung heroes of this whole business, because somebody’s got to cut this grass. Somebody’s got to fertilize it. Somebody’s got to water it. Somebody’s got to trim it every day. Somebody’s got to do all those tasks. It’s a big job, and most members, it doesn’t cross their mind.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.