They have a vision for a happier Congress: More golf

‘This is what we need more of on Capitol Hill — kind of old school’

Congressional staffer Stan Skocki tees off as Lewis Myers, left, and Chris Krepich watch during the Congressional Golf Association’s bipartisan tournament at East Potomac Park in Washington on Aug. 18. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional staffer Stan Skocki tees off as Lewis Myers, left, and Chris Krepich watch during the Congressional Golf Association’s bipartisan tournament at East Potomac Park in Washington on Aug. 18. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 15, 2021 at 6:45am

Once again, a Republican and a Democrat looked at the events unfolding before them with completely diametric views of what should happen next.

“Get up,” said Chris Krepich, communications director for Ohio Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup.

“No — it should get down,” responded Lewis Myers, a staffer for Stacey Plaskett, the Democratic delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It turns out Krepich was right — a fact Myers quickly, if tacitly, acknowledged with a question, “What did you swing there?”

The pair were teeing off on the first hole of the Congressional Golf Association’s “Nine and Wine” par 3 tourney at East Potomac Golf Links. Despite storms earlier in the day and tornado warnings that afternoon, the decidedly casual tournament hosted by the 4-year-old staffer organization attracted 15 players last month, a crowd that delighted CGA board members Myers and Krepich.

“I think the turnout today — even with the rain — just shows that we have a following and people like what we’re doing,” said Myers, who founded the group.

Congress is home to about 30 official staff organizations — basically, the Capitol Hill equivalent of college clubs — not including less formal groups like the CGA. There are affinity groups, professional development organizations and partisan clubs, but few like the CGA, which exists primarily for fun’s sake.

The golfers at August’s event ran the gamut: Players ranged from lowly staff assistants all the way up to chiefs of staff, with every other position in between represented, too. There were Democrats and Republicans, House staff and Senate aides, guys who played competitively in college and brand-new duffers using borrowed clubs. The crowd skewed young — at 35, Myers guessed he was the oldest player there — but that fits: The average age of a House staffer is 32.

The conditions weren’t favorable on East Potomac’s red course, which doesn’t drain well in the best of times. A week straight of rain left the fairways flooded and turned sand traps into small lakes. Well-hit tee shots plopped into the greens, leaving small, dimpled craters afterward. First opened in the 1920s on an artificial island and last overhauled sometime before the Eisenhower administration, East Potomac’s courses have a you-get-what-you-pay-for feel to them: For just $14 a round, you can expect to get a little wet and face a few swarms of mosquitoes.

But that might change soon, thanks, in small part, to the CGA. National Links Trust, a nonprofit, entered into a 50-year contract with the National Park Service last year to renovate and run East Potomac and D.C.’s two other municipal courses, Rock Creek and Langston. The nonprofit won the bid after going through the CGA to connect with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who wrote a letter of recommendation.

(How much this ultimately mattered is unclear: NLT did not know how many other bids they beat out, and NPS did not respond to a request for comment. The nonprofit, created by a handful of all-star golf course architects with D.C. roots who promised to perform the redesign work pro bono, is replacing a series of for-profit concessionaires who held short-term contracts with NPS.)

NLT has promised to overhaul D.C.’s municipal courses without jacking up greens fees, pledging to keep them accessible to regular residents interested in spoiling a few good walks.

‘Kind of old school’

That approach to what is usually seen as an elitist sport matches CGA’s — golf should be for everyone, not just the wealthy few who grew up more fearful of double bogeys than the boogeyman. Some CGA members have played their entire lives; others just picked up the sport recently.

On this particular outing, Republicans outnumbered their peers — out of the 11 duffers I spoke to, Myers is the only one who swings to the left, but he said the CGA membership of 70 probably hooks slightly toward Democrats, 60-40. Men outnumber women — just two on this day — but that may reflect the fact that the Women’s Congressional Golf Association has been around for decades now.

As he was waiting to tee off, Myers told me that one of the group’s goals is to drive partisan foes together.

“I think this is what we need more of on Capitol Hill — kind of old school, people doing things outside of politics where you can actually establish and reestablish some relationships,” Myers said. “There’s untold stories of legislation and things that have come out over the years through the connections we’ve been able to make.”

As Myers stepped up to the tee box, I asked Krepich for any concrete examples of the deals sealed, or at least negotiations started, at a CGA event.

“I wish we did, but I don’t have anything good in my back pocket right now,” he said. “But I’ve made friends out here that I otherwise would have never had any reason to get to know.”

Like him and Myers?

“If golf didn't bring us together, we might not have become the closest friends … it’s a unifying sport,” Krepich said, pausing to comment on Myers’ shot, which landed on the green.

Political fore-fathers

Golf is a talker’s game. You talk to your caddy before shots, you talk to other players between them, and you talk to the ball during, begging it to move how you wanted it, rather than how you hit it. Unlike nearly every other sport, fitness is not required — the truly cardiovascularly deficient can rent a golf cart. Drinking is condoned, if not outright encouraged. It’s no wonder golf is a natural networking activity. It’s how Stan Skocki got his job on the Hill.

Last summer, Skocki decided to play a course not far from his home in Northern Virginia. Golfers often play in foursomes — if you show up at the clubhouse alone or in a pair, you’ll sometimes get paired up with another party. That’s how Skocki met Krepich. They got to talking, and cards were exchanged. A few months later, Skocki reached out, which led to an internship with Krepich’s boss. Now he’s a staff assistant for Republican Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio.

Krepich said golf helps him take the measure of a person.

“Golf is the way you get to actually know the people you can trust,” he added. “You find out a lot out here, who keeps their cool and who cheats on their strokes.”

That reminded me of something Rick Reilly, the longtime Sports Illustrated columnist, once wrote in his book on former President Donald Trump’s golfing habits. “Golf is like bicycle shorts — it reveals a lot about a man,” Reilly wrote in “Commander in Cheat.”

Krepich, a spokesman by trade, avoids the trap with a laugh. “CGA has no formal position on the former president’s golf game,” he said.

Golf’s relationship with politics goes back a long way. One of the nation’s most exclusive clubs, Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, was founded by a pair of representatives who wanted to “meet socially with businessmen,” according to its website. Early members included Calvin Coolidge, John D. Rockefeller, Herbert Hoover and William Randolph Hearst.

Someone once said that golf can best be defined as an endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle. You could say the same about legislating.

But for CGA’s members, golf is an escape from the Hill’s daily histrionics. “The drama here is whether Kate [Doherty] or Marie [Policastro] is going to hit better,” said Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Dan Meuser’s chief of staff, Tyler Menzler, referring to two Wenstrup staffers.

In the end, it was Doherty — she finished second on the day, shooting a 34. Her officemate, Krepich, took the low score — 32, or 5 over par.