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Column: Fore, and Against: Should Obama Play Golf?

President Barack Obama smiles while golfing at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. In a rare move for him, the president planned a break in the middle of his Martha's Vineyard vacation to return to Washington Sunday night for unspecified meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and other advisers. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

President Barack Obama smiles while golfing at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. In a rare move for him, the president planned a break in the middle of his Martha's Vineyard vacation to return to Washington Sunday night for unspecified meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and other advisers. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Nothing infuriates President Obama’s adversaries more than his golf outings, which have become so frequent that even his sympathizers have started to mutter about the unseemly symbolism of a commander-in-chief who practically lives on the links.

In all the uproar, I’ve yet to hear what it is about golf that the president likes. He’s not using it as a social icebreaker with Congress, as other chief executives have done. Fresh air, perhaps, or quality time with pals? In 2012, Golf Digest reported that Obama enjoys wagering up to $10 a hole, so maybe that’s it.

My experience with the game suggests a different motivation: He just can’t help himself. I’m sure Obama would like to devote more time to his job and his family. But, you see, if he had just put that drive on No. 4 a little to the right, he probably would have made par. If that putt hadn’t lipped the cup and rolled another six feet, a double bogey would have been a bogey. So if he just spends a little more time on the driving range and keeps his head down on those fairway irons . . .

That sort of interior monologue kept me coming back to the course, round after wretched round, for a substantial stretch of what might otherwise have been a productive adulthood. I was just competent enough to believe persistence might pay off; capable of breaking 100, I thought, falsely, that I was capable of breaking 90.

Trying to explain Obama’s obsession, White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters last Friday that, “you know, sports and leisure activities are a good way for release and clearing of the mind for a lot of us” — which is true of golf, if you consider it mind-clearing to ruminate for hours about why the hell you couldn’t avoid the water on a simple par-3.

Somewhat more credibly, Obama’s regular partner, Marvin Nicholson, told Golf Digest that the president “usually shoots in the mid-90s,” but “he’d be better if he could play more.” Ah, wouldn’t we all?

After about half a decade of expensive futility, I finally sold my clubs at a yard sale. It was hard, but eventually I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I don’t just mean the bag.

I have few fond memories of my golf years, though I will never forget the time I drove the ball to within 30 yards of the green on a 350-yard par-4 — an easy pitch, which I shanked straight into the woods at my right. I batted the ball around the forest for about 15 minutes before emerging to score a 9. At least that’s what I put on my card.

My golf trajectory is typical, which is one reason the game is losing popularity and, some fear (hope?), slowly dying out. America may have reached Peak Golf in 2005; the number of regular players hit 30 million that year and has been declining ever since.

A recent New York Times article cited National Golf Foundation statistics to the effect that the game will lose 20 percent of the current 25 million players in the next few years.

It has dawned on the doyens of the sport that expensive, time-consuming exasperation is a tough sell. Some have proposed attracting younger people by tweaking the ancient rules; one idea is to let beginners putt into a 15-inch-wide hole instead of the current 4.25-inch receptacle. They’ll have to make it big enough for a beach ball to lure me back.

These facts about the game’s declining popularity suggest a new hypothesis — beyond the standard gripes about how odd it is for a president to lament an American’s murder by terrorists one minute and reach for his driver the next — as to why Obama’s golf habit may hurt him politically. In a country where fewer and fewer people actually share his obsession, fewer and fewer are willing to cut him any slack for indulging it.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, swore off golf after concluding that it didn’t look right to play while Americans fought and died in Iraq.

Obama might be well-advised to follow Bush’s example. Knowing how hard it was to go cold turkey myself, though, I’d be surprised if he did so immediately. He appears to be intent, still, on the maddening mission of handicap reduction.

Actually, I don’t know why Obama’s enemies insist that he quit. If they really wanted to ruin his life, they’d tell him to get back out on the course — and stay there.

Charles Lane is an editorial writer at The Washington Post.