19 Mar 2018

Golfing links: Pacing the photo-ops with US presidents

4:34 pm on 19 March 2018

By David Cohen*, Contributor

Opinion - The definitive history of American presidential visits to New Zealand has yet to be written, but we already know it will be a slim volume - just two visits over the past half-century.

US President Barack Obama and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

President Barack Obama and then Prime Minister John Key on the golf course in Hawaii in 2014. Photo: AFP

Any appendix detailing the visits of future or former commanders in chief - the latter also about to include Barack Obama, too - wouldn't be terribly long, either.

A supplementary chapter on the prominence of golf on these important interludes, however, could run to many pages.

Mr Obama this week joins the small club of leaders who have experienced both the Oval Office and New Zealand hospitality - and golf is well to the fore of the agenda for the three-day stopover.

American presidents like the game as much so as New Zealand likes photographic international publicity. In the past 121 years, only four of them (Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter) were nongolfers.

Former prime minister John Key is organising this therefore all-important part of Mr Obama's visit, which will include two games in Northland with some "carefully chosen" opponents.

Mr Key was just four years old the first time an American president, Lyndon B Johnson, came to town came to town.

President Johnson greeting child Clem Thorn among the crowd at Wellington Airport in 1966.

President Johnson greeting Clem Thorn among the crowd at Wellington Airport in 1966. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Photo: Ref: EP/1966/4545-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23083703

Accompanied by his wife, Lady Bird, Mr Johnson made good use of his 24 hours in the country, visiting Ōhakea air base, enjoying a state luncheon and parading before an estimated 200,000 New Zealanders who turned out on the streets and outside Parliament to catch a glimpse of the great Texan. He did not play golf. The only holes LBJ was interested in shooting were in Southeast Asia, specifically in the war effort in Vietnam that he was in New Zealand in 1966 to shore up support for.

Thirty-three years on, Bill Clinton made the trip to help bolster free trade in Asia and the Pacific - and he did manage to find time for a game.

While Mr Clinton's arrival in Auckland for the 1999 APEC summit was relatively recent, historically speaking, it took place a lifetime ago in media terms. Google was barely a year old, smart phones were actually pretty dumb and social media basically didn't exist. Some journalists at the time didn't even have personal email accounts.

All this made it relatively easy to present golf as a natural centrepiece, however, with many shots of the president relaxing with the country's then first husband, Burton Shipley, over 18 holes at the exclusive Millbrook Country Club.

Media images of the game were also picked up a little hyperbolically by the Tourism Board for what it called its "100% Pure" campaign for New Zealand.

US President Bill Clinton tees off on the eighth hole at Millbrook Resort in Queenstown, New Zealand, a day after attending the two day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) 14 September, 1999.

US President Bill Clinton at Millbrook Resort, in Queenstown, a day after attending the APEC summit in 1999. Photo: AFP

The visiting president "quickly discovered the magic of New Zealand," the tourism website gushed, quoting his initial words to his Kiwi hosts: "Everybody on our plane was just gasping when we saw the landscape, it's just so beautiful."

The same might also have been asked about the next similar golfing moment, this one involving Mr Obama and John Key at a course at a military base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

That last encounter happened after months of behind-the-scenes organisation, as much as will have gone into any game played during this week's visit, the first by an American president out of office since the then businessman Donald Trump was in Auckland in 1997.

Is there much tangible benefit to these exercises? Do they provide real economic return?

If New Zealand leaders playing golf with Bill Clinton or Barack Obama is such a self-evident publicity coup, why aren't any other countries putting in a similar effort to get their guys on the green?

For the media and political leaders, though, there's clearly a hole lotta love going on when it comes to improving relations between our own two countries.

* David Cohen is a (nongolfing) Wellington journalist and author.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs