JERSEY CITY, N.J. — It began on Thursday morning, another early-autumn team golf competition, this one featuring 12 Americans playing 12 Internationals in the 12th edition of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club, with a course built on reclaimed swampland in plain view of the Statue of Liberty. Simple as that.
But by Sunday afternoon — with a U.S. victory a foregone conclusion and with Marine One, the presidential helicopter, briefly hovering over the proceedings — this goodwill golfing get-together had morphed into something else. The U.S. win was dominating, 19-11, and the author of that immortal phrase — “we’re going to win so much you’re going to get sick and tired of winning” — was on the scene to witness and celebrate this U.S. triumph. In victory, there was Dustin Johnson, the lanky, bearded American winner, taking a smartphone snap of his fiancee, Paulina Gretzky, arm-in-arm with Donald J. Trump, golf impresario and 45th president of the United States. The American dream.
The closing ceremony, with a waxing moon rising and a still harbor n the distance, marked the first time that a sitting American president had presented the winning captain with the enormous gold bowl that is the Presidents Cup. Trump, speaking on behalf of the winners, said the win was for hurricane victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. “We dedicate this trophy to all of those people that went through so much,” the president said. Thousands of spectators, filling the grandstands that surrounded the closing ceremony, cheered, some of them lustily.
You were reminded of what George W. Bush once said while addressing a white-tie crowd: “Some people call you the elites. I call you my base.” On Election Day, Trump lost New Jersey and New York handily. But if his support among PGA Tour players is any indicator, he did well with the golfing population. The fan reaction he received at Liberty National would support that, too.
At the winners’ press conference, Karen Crouse of The New York Times, posed this question: “What was it like sharing the stage with President Trump, for anyone that would like to answer.”
Jordan Spieth said, “Strick?”
He was referring to the U.S. captain, Steve Stricker.
Kevin Kisner, a rookie player and a team cut-up, turned to Stricker and said, “You're the captain.”
Looking for an out, Stricker said, “You said anybody.”
Then Johnson lent his voice to this Churchillian discourse: “I thought it was awesome,” he said. Earlier, when he was striding from the 14th green to the 15th tee, Johnson spotted Trump watching him from high above in the high-tech, glass-enclosed clubhouse. From a distance of maybe 100 yards, each beamed a smile at the other.
The captain seemed to be emboldened by the gentleman from South Florida (by way of South Carolina). He said of Trump’s presence, “I thought it was a great thrill. A lot of us have either met or played with the president. I know some of these guys live down in the same area he does. 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, it wasn’t about that. It was about us getting together as a team, playing for one another, playing for the U.S.A. It was a great thrill for all of us to get the trophy handed to us from him.”
Again: Simple as that. Right?
In normal times, it would be, but these times are abnormal. Never before, at the intersection of politics and sports, have you ever seen a roadside wreck like the one that’s been on display for about a fortnight, with the president taking, by way of Twitter, broad swipes at the NFL and the NBA, two sports dominated by black men.
You can say that politics and sport, as two top-shelf ingredients, should not be mixed. Maybe that’s right. But in this instance, the two in combination cannot be ignored. The president of the United States decided, in aggressive and sometimes vulgar terms, to weigh in on the appropriateness of an athlete not standing for the National Anthem. We all know the resulting uproar. The cover of last week’s Sports Illustrated read, “A Nation Divided, Sports United.” On Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin opened up the new season in his Trump wig and a red Trump baseball hat and a white Trump golf shirt, while his press secretary bragged about the “sacrifice” he had made for Puerto Rico by playing only nine holes of golf before heading back to work. Topical humor, with golf sitting there like a punching bag.
The president rested his Twitter account on the subject and then came the Presidents Cup. For four days, ferries shuttled back and forth across New York Harbor, pinging between Manhattan to Jersey City, the squat boats filled with golf fans in polyester shirts made in China. On the way to the course, and with coffee, promise and cellphones in hand, thousands of fans pointed their camera-phones at Lady Liberty to snap a photo. The whole situation was a perfect storm of opportunity, golf’s chance to see where it stood on a cultural debate.
In the winners’ press conference, there were 12 players, one captain and four assistant captains sitting on a dais. Sixteen white men and Tiger Woods, with a Starbucks coffee cup in front of him. Now and again, to various questions addressed to people other than himself, Woods closed his eyes for several seconds at a time. This was particularly evident when Stricker was discussing the “great thrill” of getting the Presidents Cup in a handoff from the president himself. It was also true when the discussion turned briefly to how the team would handle a possible victors’ White House invitation.
When the press conference was over, I asked Woods if his closed eyes signaled any sort of discomfort with the subject of Trump and his recent NBA/NFL tweets. (LeBron James, Steph Curry and scores of other athletes, black and white and otherwise, have told Trump exactly how they feel.) Woods said they did not.
Trump was at the Presidents Cup for about three hours on Sunday, standing in the Liberty National clubhouse for much of the time, his thumbs often tucked into his belt, looking out to the course below him. He didn’t post a single tweet in that period. When he broke his Twitter silence, it was to say, “Congratulations to #TeamUSA on your great @Presidents Cup Victory.” Before long, his tweet had been liked 40,000 times. That’s chump change in bigly tweeting, but as the president knows well, golf’s a niche sport and a world onto itself.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.