Politics

A Bush tradition in Coral Gables: fast golf

In 2001, President Bush, center, walks off the 18th hole with his brother, then-governor Jeb Bush, right, and father, former President George H.W. Bush, left, at the Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, Saturday, July 7, 2001. The elder Bush is credited with putting a family priority on playing 18 holes quickly.
In 2001, President Bush, center, walks off the 18th hole with his brother, then-governor Jeb Bush, right, and father, former President George H.W. Bush, left, at the Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, Saturday, July 7, 2001. The elder Bush is credited with putting a family priority on playing 18 holes quickly. AP

Each Sunday, Jeb Bush tries to makes time for golf. But not too much time.

“He’s really fast,” said Miami real estate mogul Ronald Krongold. “I love the way we play. ... We hustle.”

People who have played with, and near, the former Florida governor described an above-average weekend golfer who excels at moving the game along, with no patience for the practice swings and player courtesies that can push 18 holes toward the five-hour mark.

“Golf would not be dying if more people played the way we play out here,” Bush said after a recent round in Coral Gables that lasted about 21/2 hours, including a 19th hole to settle a tied score. “It’s not that hard to do, to be honest with you.”

As he readies for a presidential run, Bush’s speedy golf game offers one of the more personal bridges between his national and local personas.

His father, former President George H. W. Bush, was famous for racing through 18 holes, giving the former Florida governor a distinctly Bush trait when it comes to a game that most presidents tend to linger over. In the Miami area, Bush’s quick pace is the most talked-about aspect of his weekly game at the Biltmore Hotel in the Gables, where he holds the coveted first tee time every Sunday.

“By the time he’s done, we’re probably two holes behind,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, part of a threesome with the second Sunday tee time at the Biltmore. “He’s good. And he plays really fast.”

Bush’s golf habit is an example of the good Miami life the 61-year-old would upend if he continues to accelerate his moves toward a presidential run. His regular Sunday foursome includes his younger son, Jeb Jr., and their standing lead-off tee time gives them a clear path through the popular public course once a week.

Bush and Jeb Jr. keep their offices at the Biltmore, too. There they collaborate on a number of businesses that include a stake in the bulk purchase of condos at the Midtown Miami complex that Krongold engineered in 2011, and investment funds that Bloomberg says have raised about $100 million during the last two years.

Both Bushes live in Coral Gables, putting two grandchildren, work and golf within a short drive for the man currently leading the polls among GOP presidential contenders.

“This is my normal day off,” an unshaven Bush said during a brief post-golf interview with the Miami Herald as he loaded his golf bag into his Audi in the Biltmore parking lot. People familiar with his game said he’s there most Sundays, and Bush said he uses the tee time “if I’m town, which I try to be.”

Two longtime friends complete Bush’s regular Biltmore foursome. Karl Stenstrom, the former CEO of a Swedish consumer-products company who made a fortune launching Pergo floors in the United States, and Ed Easton, a leading commercial developer in Miami and chairman of the Easton Group in Doral.

“He’s very competitive,” Easton said of Bush. “Everybody knows who wins.”

Typically, Easton and Bush play “Jebbie” and Stenstrom, who is Jeb Jr.’s godfather. The losing team buys breakfast, and they compete in perpetual three-week tournaments for fictitious trophies with names created on the fly.

There’s been the Midland Cup, named after the former governor’s Texas hometown, and the Göteborg Cup for Stenstrom’s birthplace in Sweden. When Stenstrom showed up barefoot one day, Jeb Jr. named the next cup “Pata Sucia” — Spanish slang for dirty feet.

Stenstrom said the group often starts as early as a 6:45 a.m. “Sometimes we tee off and it only gets light at the green of the first hole,” he said. Stenstrom said the game usually takes about two hours and 15 minutes.

Bush’s foursome plays a form of “ready golf,” which generally ignores course etiquette that calls for players to stand still while someone swings. Instead, the foursome’s two carts zip down the fairway in tandem, and players are free to swing as soon as they can make contact with the ball.

“They’re the fastest foursome I’ve ever played with,” said Mario Artecona, who usually follows Bush around the Biltmore course as a regular part of Mayor Gimenez’s Sunday threesome. Artecona, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami, said he occasionally subs in with the Bush group when one of the regulars can’t make it. “I’m one of the first alternates,” he said. “Because I’m fast.”

One of Bush’s most memorable golf outings as governor was with Matthew Ross, an autistic sixth-grader from Pasco County who met the governor during a 2002 campaign rally. Matthew emailed Bush and the two struck up an online correspondence. An early exchange had Matthew inviting Bush to golf.

“We shall see, Matthew,” Bush wrote back on Jan. 7, 2003. “Do you play fast?”

“I play real fast,” the boy replied, according to emails in a database collated by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. “My nickname is Play-Through Matthew.”

Five hours later, at 1:32 a.m., Bush forwarded the email chain to an assistant with the note: “I would like to do this.”

One reason Bush can play golf so quickly on Sundays is that there is nobody ahead of him slowing things down. Citing privacy concerns, Biltmore executives declined to say how the former governor ended up with the premiere tee time, followed by Miami-Dade’s top elected official. Owned by Coral Gables, the Biltmore course is public but also includes a membership option that the website says gives early access to tee-time reservations.

As a Coral Gables resident using a cart, the membership would cost Bush $5,520 a year. (A Gimenez spokesman said the mayor gave up his Biltmore membership, and that Artecona, a member, secures the Sunday tee time.)

The demands of a presidential campaign would be the biggest test yet for Bush’s devotion to his Sunday game. Easton said he often would fly to Tallahassee on Saturday to keep up the Sunday tradition while Bush was governor. Out of office, Bush once landed in Miami at 2 a.m. from a business trip to China and was at the Biltmore five hours later to tee-off.

“This is as important as can be for the four of us,” said Stenstrom, who met Bush at a tennis tournament in Caracas in the 1970s, when Bush was a young banker there. “There’s no way whatever he does in his life is going to change his game,” Stenstrom said of the Sunday golf outing. “You have no idea how fun this is.”

With golf so closely tied to White House leisure — of the post-war presidents, only Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter didn’t play — Jeb Bush’s attachment to the game is bound to get more attention. Polls show he’s a front-runner for the 2016 GOP nomination, and Bush’s golf habit is a natural touchstone for his presidential heritage.

“All of the Bushes have played lightning quick. More than one ball will be in the air simultaneously,” said Don Van Natta Jr., a Miami-based investigative reporter for ESPN who wrote a 2003 book on presidential golf titled First Off the Tee. “They call it polo golf. That’s kind of what they’re most known for.”

Van Natta said the Bushes stand out among golfing presidents for getting off the course so quickly. “All the other presidents in my research play slowly, because they want to make it last,” he said. “It’s an escape hatch from the public and the press. They leave them all behind at the first tee, and don’t see them again until the 18th green.”

Bill Clinton slowed his game down with do-over shots and free swings known as mulligans, a style of play that came to symbolize self indulgence. George W. Bush gave up golf as president in 2003 after deciding the recreational images were inappropriate during wartime. President Obama has taken heat for his devotion to golf, playing 41/2 hours in Martha’s Vineyard after delivering solemn remarks about the beheading of American James Foley by ISIS terrorists.

“The only time Obama played really quickly was the day Osama bin Laden was killed,” Van Natta said. “The pool reporter thought that Obama got off the course because the weather stunk.”

While Obama’s uneven game tends to drag — “Sometimes he’ll have nine or 11 shots on a hole,” Van Natta said — Bush has the skills to move through 18 holes at a respectable clip, according to fellow golfers. He reports his best score ever at 74. The day the Herald approached him at the Biltmore, Bush said he shot an 88 on the par-71 course — meaning it took him 17 more swings to finish than it should an expert.

“I don’t want you to be thinking I’m a great golfer,” Bush said. “But you don’t have to be great to play fast.”

Bush, who kept a clock on his desk as governor counting down the minutes until his second term ended, said his fastest round was finished in one hour and 36 minutes. That’s about five minutes per hole. He played it with his father. “You can’t get much faster than that,” Bush said.

The would-be candidate said presidential golf has the potential to be the fastest of all.

“My dad, back when he was president, had people parting the waters,” he said. “It’s a little bit different.”

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