The American fans cheered loudly when Jack Nicklaus appeared on the first tee, kicking off the Presidents Cup opening ceremonies. The International supporters were even more raucous when Gary Player appeared just behind him. But then came Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama—and the bleachers shook.
It says something about the game of golf that the three former leaders of the free world would appear together at a professional event. The current President is scheduled to arrive for Sunday’s action, too. And for some of the players, this was old hat.
“We know them all, which is kind of crazy to say, when it comes to former presidents,” Justin Thomas said. “That’s the cool thing about golf, it ties us all together so much and they love golf, too … we just had three former Presidents of the United States on the first tee cheering us on and shaking our hand and acting like we are all boys.”
“I’ve gotten to play a bit of golf with W, and he absolutely loves it. He’s a nut for it,” Jordan Spieth said after his round. “It’s very rare that you get three Presidents in one place,” he added. “Very rare. We should feel lucky for that.”
While President Trump has gained particular notoriety for his relationship with golf, there is no denying that the game has long been synonymous with presidential recreation. The trio strolled in casually Thursday afternoon, waving to the crowd, each in his own Presidents Cup polo. They posed for pictures—including selfies with Phil Mickelson and Charley Hoffman—and mingled with the rest of the assembled crowd, soaking up sun and adoration.
For some players, the moment was surreal.
“It was one of the most exciting moments of my life, standing there,” said Charl Schwartzel. “I was looking forward to this Presidents Cup for a very long time, and I didn’t expect all the presidents to be there. Just to get to meet them was a dream come true for me. You know, then obviously to hit that first tee shot with the wind pumping off the right was quite intimidating.”
Oh yeah—that tee shot. The players faced a challenging opener: water left, trouble right. The wind was whipping toward the water, but the arena-style seating made it hard to feel from the tee itself. Schwartzel overcorrected, pumping his tee ball into the right fescue. Things only got worse from there, as he and Hideki Matsuyama were steamrolled 6&4 by Thomas and Rickie Fowler. The day had a notably American feel to it from the start.
In spite of the focus this week on the national anthem and its place in sports, Darius Rucker’s Presidents Cup rendition went off without a demonstration on either side. This was a wholly patriotic scene, with particular honor paid to first responders and their service to country. Nor did partisan politics seem to come into play; the fans greeted both George W. Bush and his Democratic counterparts with fervor, although the “Fanatics,” a yellow-and-green clad group of International fans, were particularly fond of President Obama, belting a song in his direction that ended “Oh Barry, we love you.”
Obama was particularly jovial, shaking hands with many of the current team members and their caddies. “I’d love to play some basketball someday,” suggested Austin Johnson, Dustin’s brother and caddie. Tiger Woods engaged Obama in a lengthy conversation as Johnson and Matt Kuchar teed off, too.
Obama was the first of the three to leave, ushered through a tunnel under the bleachers, posing for a couple selfies with security guards before stepping into a black SUV. “Alright, alright, I’m coming,” he called ahead to his team.
Clinton and Bush stayed a bit longer, standing at the back of the first tee for a firsthand look at the challenges of the opening hole. Phil Mickelson even engaged President Clinton in some strategy talk.
“He was back there and he wasn’t teeing off, so I said, ‘If you were teeing off, would you hit three-wood?'” Clinton said. “He said, ‘No, I’d go ahead and hit driver.”
Phil and Kevin Kisner trudged off down the fairway, the last of the golf stars to head out onto the course, as the day’s biggest celebrities meandered towards the exits. President Clinton was in no hurry to do so—he was still marveling at the 365-yard missile Brooks Koepka had just launched over the dogleg left.
These big hitters, they just hit it over the tree,” said the 42nd president, shaking his head.
“Mr. President, President Bush is waiting for us,” one of his aides told him.
“If it was us,” Clinton continued, gesturing to the safety of the right rough, “we just wanna get over here and not go in there.”
His security detail shouldered their way into the conversation; it was time for this show to stop and the golf to begin.