Politics aside, Presidents Cup gets off to flying start

Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama got a ringside seat for the opening tee shots of the 12th Presidents Cup. Elsa/Getty Images

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- It's easy to insist there should be some line of demarcation between politics and sporting events. It's more difficult when that sporting event is literally called the Presidents Cup and three former United States presidents are standing behind the competitors as they launch their opening tee shots.

And yet, under a gorgeous blue sky, with wind whipping through the 1,300-seat horseshoe enclosure around the first tee, that's exactly what happened.

About a half-hour before the first scheduled tee shot on Thursday afternoon, former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama emerged together through a tunnel. There were no cries of derision from the gallery. There was no sense of the social unrest that has unfolded at other sporting events in recent weeks.

They glad-handed with golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, waved to spectators, even posed for photographs together.

When Darius Rucker delivered a stirring version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," no golfers took a knee. This wasn't a formal opening ceremony, so not every player was in attendance. But even those who were still fine-tuning their warm-ups at the nearby practice range stopped what they were doing and placed a hand over their hearts.

Not that any of this should be a surprise.

When asked earlier this week about the potential for any type of protest from his team, U.S. captain Steve Stricker succinctly said, "We've had that discussion already. None of my players want to do that."

He later elaborated, explaining, "I just wanted to know what they wanted to do and how we wanted to proceed as a team. We are going to do what we always do, and that's take off our hat and put our hands across our chest and over our heart and respect the flag. So that's what we're planning on doing."

The only potentially uncomfortable political moments came when spectators stifled a giggle to yell comments such as, "Come back, Barack!" and "We miss you terribly, Mr. Clinton!"

Even those pleas didn't break up a merry scene, with red, white and blue-clad fans chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A" while their International team-supporting counterparts, led by a team of fans called The Fanatics, sang songs about their favorite players. Among the best? "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they're here to stay / Oh, I believe in Jason Day." And then there was, "I Si Woo, Kimmy, shakin' that ass, shakin' that ass..."

The scene, of course, might change by the end of the weekend.

According to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, there's a strong possibility that President Donald Trump will attend the tournament on Sunday.

"He hasn't confirmed that yet," Monahan said. "His people have been out and taken a good, hard look at the property and worked closely with our team. We are thinking that he is going to come out, but he has not yet confirmed and we don't know timing or all the underlying details."

Monahan continued, explaining that this situation doesn't differ, in his mind, from any other U.S.-based edition of this event.

"We've always invited the president," he added. "This is not a political statement that we're making. It's the Presidents Cup. He's the President of the United States. ... This is a nonpartisan event. We are not endorsing a person. We are not endorsing a party."

Perhaps there will be more tension around Liberty National if or when the current president arrives. Or perhaps the joyous celebration will continue, failing to mirror the social unrest that has enveloped other sporting events.

On Thursday, the entire scene was about golf. Even the former presidents came away from it talking not about political or social issues, but about the game itself.

"It's a very interesting shot," Clinton said of the opening tee shot after watching 10 players take aim. "If there were no wind, these big hitters, they'd take it over the tree. But having to mess with it puts them at risk of that creek. So those are the only ones that I've seen that went into the creek beyond that. The rest of us, we just want to get over here and not go in there."

With that, he smiled. Just a golf fan talking about golf after watching some of the game's best players from only a few yards away.