President Donald Trump looked in his element Sunday night when, surrounded by large crowds of star-spangled golf fans, the 45th President presented the Presidents Cup trophy to the winning American team on the 14th green at Liberty National Golf Club.
The President’s week included butting heads with the NFL and the Mayor of disaster-stricken San Juan, Puerto Rico, but on a cloudless, carefree New Jersey afternoon, the Presidents Cup took on the feel of an exhibition, and its focus shifted to the arrival of the country’s most famous golfer. Midway through the action, the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, flew over a corner of the course to cheers from the crowd and landed nearby at about 2:45 p.m., at which point Trump was whisked up to the clubhouse in a black SUV.
Trump spent the next few hours inside former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s hospitality suite, located on the second floor of Liberty National’s lavish clubhouse. The clubhouse is composed largely of glass, and the suite offers expansive views of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, as well as a look out to the 14th hole (the members play the hole as the 18th, but the track was rerouted for the Presidents Cup). Trump received just 10 percent of the vote in Manhattan, but no matter; golf has become Trump's escape and here, across the bay, he seemed wholly comfortable.
The setup made for a strange spectacle in which the crowds were watching the president watch the golf. As groups played their approach shots into the 14th green, most fans’ eyes were trained on the window of the clubhouse. Trump, meanwhile, chatted with a group of people that included his son, Eric, Finchem, current commissioner Jay Monahan, and Andrew Giuliani, the son of New York City’s former mayor. A gaggle of photographers lined up adjacent the green, snapping pictures of Trump, apathetic to the golf being played behind them.
It was a reminder of the gravity and celebrity of the presidency; just as Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Bush had overshadowed Jack Nicklaus on Thursday, President Trump made the whole crowd forget about Justin Thomas. As they walked off the 14th green, players looked directly up at the suite, and several acknowledged the president, including Thomas and Dustin Johnson, who each waved at his window.
As the day’s matches officially wound down and the Americans cemented their large margin of victory, spectators regathered around the 14th green, the site of the trophy ceremony. Heightened security kept a tight perimeter around the green, but fans crowded 10-deep to catch a glimpse of the Cup teams — and the President himself. He strode down the hill and across the green, wearing a dark suit and white shirt with no tie. He greeted the International team first before joining the Americans, shaking hands enthusiastically with nearly every member of each squad.
"I tell you what," Trump said as he was introduced at the podium, "I’ve been watching this from the beginning, and I have to say our Team USA, wow, did you play well."
The friendly crowd seemed to put the president at ease, particularly on the heels of a couple weeks during which he has been at odds with the sporting world, calling for an NFL boycott, uninviting an NBA star to the White House, and suggesting that national-anthem protestors be "fired" from their teams. Team USA, by contrast, seemed to enjoy his company, sticking around enthusiastically after the ceremony for handshakes and pictures.
President Trump faced criticism over the weekend for his government’s slow response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, and his lashing out on Twitter at the mayor of San Juan, criticizing the "poor leadership" of the mayor "and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help." He also tweeted several times urging his followers not to believe "Fake News."
Critics across social media took issue Sunday with the idea that he would be attending a golf tournament rather than attending to Puerto Rican aid, but the crowd on hand cheered loudly when the president announced that he was dedicating the winning trophy. "On behalf of all of the people of Texas, and all of the people of — if you look today and you see what’s happening how horrible it is, but we have it all under really great control — Puerto Rico, and the people of Florida who have really suffered over this last short period of time with the hurricanes, I wanna just remember them and we’re gonna dedicate this trophy to all those people who went through so much that we love, that are part of our great state, really a part of our great nation."
The pronouncement drew a few shouts of objection, which were easily drowned out by cheers.
After he presented the trophy, Trump mingled for several minutes with the team, their wives and girlfriends, and several of the assistant captains. Tiger Woods appeared to keep his distance, standing with arms crossed at the back of the group. Trump eventually tracked Woods down, approaching him for a firm handshake and a brief conversation as the group posed for a team picture.
Assembled on stage for a press conference afterwards, the team mostly chose to avoid addressing the president’s attendance. Dustin Johnson was most expressive, saying “I thought it was awesome," while Jordan Spieth passed the responsibility to his captain: "Steve speaks for all of us."
"I thought it was a great thrill," Stricker said. "A lot of us have either met or played with the president, and I know some of these guys live down in the same area that he comes down to.
"I thought it was a great opportunity for us to be with him. And this tournament is about respecting the office, respecting the president of the United States, and whether your views may be one way versus another, that wasn't what it was about there on the green. It was about us getting together as a team, playing for one another, playing for the USA and it was a great thrill for all of us to get the trophy handed to us from him."
The thrill appeared to go both ways; the President walked off the 14th green with a smile, waving and giving thumbs-up to the warm crowd. The show was over. As the crowds filed to the exits several minutes later, Marine One buzzed overhead.
"There he is!" one woman yelled, waving in excitement up at the chopper. "Goodbye, Mr. President!"
She turned to her husband. "Wow. What a show.”