News & Opinion

Pomp, presidents and no protests

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – When Phil Mickelson arrived at the first tee Thursday at Liberty National Golf Club, he couldn't resist. Seated above him in the VIP box were the three most recent U.S. commanders-in-chief: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. So, Mickelson did what any American would do: he took a selfie.

Phil being Phil, he cut off half his head from the picture, but then again it reportedly was his first selfie. (At 47, he’s a bit older than the selfie generation.) As his brother and caddie Tim tweeted, "When you can take a selfie with three US Presidents, you do it!!"

The Presidents Cup never has been more presidential.

This competition between the U.S. and the rest of the world except for Europe is a Johnny-come-lately. Through the first 11 renditions, the matches have been as close as the Ryder Cup before Jack Nicklaus had the bright idea for GB&I to become Team Europe.

As one of his final acts as PGA Tour commissioner in 1994, Deane Beman instinctively understood that a new event never would transcend the history of the Ryder Cup. How could it? But a new event could earn instant credibility by latching onto the prestige of the highest office in the land. Beman secured the support of former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and here we are. Every president has accepted a role as honorary chairman of the competition when it has been played in the U.S. 

There was also Nicklaus and Gary Player, who with the late Arnold Palmer used to be golf's Big Three. For one day, the three former U.S. presidents were a Big Three of sorts and easily topped Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan at the Ryder Cup for star power, 3 and 2. 

"I get excited about the fact that three individuals ascended to the highest office in the land, and golf was an important part of their life and continues to be an important part of their life," PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. "I think it's a great statement for our game."

On a sun-drenched afternoon, a non-partisan crowd from a 1,300-seat horseshoe enclosure above the first tee showered the former chief executives with love. The Fanatics, the traveling group of supporters from Australia, sang to Clinton, "We love you, Billy; oh, yes we do; oh, Billy, we love you!" But there were some less flattering catcalls, too, including one spectator who yelled at Obama, "A $5,000 deductible isn't a health-care program!"

Golf has been a safe haven for the current president, Donald Trump, whose children are overseeing the several courses that he owns while he is in office. This year, the U.S. Women's Open and Senior PGA Championship went on as scheduled at Trump-owned venues despite his comments that were deemed derogatory toward women and minorities, the two groups of people whom the golf industry covets if the game is going to grow at home.

Although Trump has been busy rescinding a White House invitation to the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors and criticizing the National Football League and its athletes who kneel during the national anthem, he is rumored to be making plans to be here Sunday. He has little to worry about in terms of peaceful protest from the players at the Presidents Cup.

The PGA Tour does pomp and circumstance like nobody else. You won't find a more patriotic setting for these biennial matches, and the Presidents Cup set the stage for one of the rare times in professional golf when the national anthem is played before the competition. What would the golfers do during musician Darius Rucker's rendition? It was much ado about nothing. No one took a knee. Nor did Lady Liberty in the distance.

As a whole, most pro golfers tend to sway to the right and are more concerned with Trump's proposed tax breaks than social reform. Those players who were at the first tee all followed the lead of the three former presidents: they removed their hats and placed their right hands on their chest. Some even sang the final words. And then the golf began.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak