If Donald Trump appears as expected Sunday at the Presidents Cup, he might find more spectators on the course than he did votes in Hudson County, N.J., where Liberty National Golf Club sits.
Looking east across New York harbor wouldn’t offer much succor either, since he lost his home county in Manhattan by a 9-to-1 margin. No, to find his base, the president would have to peer south to the only county around here that he carried, Staten Island, long known as the only borough welcoming of New York City’s garbage at its infamous, now-closed landfill.
Alternatively, he could just gaze around the locker room.
Given his penchant for referring to the nation’s military leaders as “my generals,” it’s not a stretch to think that Mr. Trump might feel a similar ownership of the Presidents Cup. Nor is it that unreasonable. He wouldn’t be the first commander-in-chief to appear at the tournament. In fact, he won’t even be the only president at Liberty National this week, since Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama will be present on the first tee Thursday morning. The political patina has long been a feature of this event.
That seems even more pertinent this week as the NFL is roiled by kneeling protests about racial injustice during the national anthem at games. The odds were remote that any member of the U.S. Presidents Cup team would take the knee, short of addressing an untied shoelace at an inopportune moment. Teams won’t even be present for Darius Rucker’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
But it was inevitable that questions about the protest would arise. The response proved no less predictable.
“I think President Trump is right. There’s a time for us to protest and it really isn’t during the national anthem,” Davis Love III told Golf Channel on Tuesday morning.
Love’s definition of appropriately patriotic protest isn’t for everyone, but such differences are the beauty of America. It’s difficult to find anyone in golf with a negative word to say about Love. He is a consummate professional, known for being friendly and gracious. He isn’t known as a protestor, but perhaps he just isn’t exposed to much injustice on the mean streets near his home in St. Simons Island, Ga., (pop: 94.8 percent white).
On Wednesday, fresh off his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Love expanded his no-fly zone for protest to include prayers and golf tournaments. “In NASCAR they have a prayer and they have the national anthem. Respect those things, and then respect the people that have fought for the right that we can protest the rest of the time,” he said. “I don’t know about during a golf tournament. We’re here to play golf.” (He also said that “the country was founded on the Constitution and the Bible,” suggesting that as a kid he may have skipped civics class to hit the golf course.)
“We’re not here to make a statement,” he concluded firmly. “We’re here to play golf.”
But a statement was indeed made.
Sitting beside Love, Tiger Woods chose his words more judiciously.
“Obviously there’s a lot of unrest right now, where it’s political or racial,” he said. “Hopefully things can be healed.”
A text message from one member of Team USA’s inner circle reveals that players are anticipating “a (expletive) show” with Trump’s appearance. Does that mean they’d rather he stay away? “All the Americans voted for him, so….” came the reply.
But the politics of players isn’t relevant to Trump’s likely appearance, no more than the voting patterns of LPGA golfers mattered when he pitched up at the U.S. Women’s Open, which was held at his New Jersey course this summer.
What is becoming apparent is that President Trump regards golf as a safe harbor, a world in which he will find a welcome, no matter how vulgar, divisive or incendiary his rhetoric. He sees golf as his base, a dependable constituency where none of his outrages are too great because his targets don’t look like us, vote like us, pray like us, copulate like us, or hold memberships like us.
And why wouldn’t he assume that? After all, the voices raised against him within the golf world have been few, principled men such as Peter Malnati and Paul Goydos. Hardly enough for a chorus.
One man’s passion for the game should not indict every golfer as an accessory in the eyes of his critics. But optics matter. The game’s governing bodies would do well to note how few emerge to the good from a relationship with Trump. Golf will be no different.
A recent USA Today outlined a troubling number of lobbyists and executives with business before the government who own memberships to Trump courses, and whose visits there have coincided with those of the president. An innocent coincidence, perhaps. But optics matter.
And how does a Twitter handle littered with bigoted content get a retweet from the president? Make a GIF of him hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball. Childish and inappropriate humor? Sure. But optics matter.
The leaders within golf spend a great deal of time talking about growing the game among historically underrepresented groups, chiefly women and minorities. That’s becoming a tough argument to sustain when the sport is perceived as embracing without dissent a man who throws around misogynistic and racially-charged statements like confetti. If only the president were a little more like Davis Love III.
Consider what else Love told Golf Channel on Tuesday. “I think you’ll see in golf that there’s a little bit more restraint,” he said. “We adhere to our rulebook and to our core values and to our traditions.”
And he’s right.
Golf is an honorable sport. It is grounded in the principle of fair play, of equal treatment for all under the rules, and the idea of individuals working together to protect the integrity of the whole. Principles that many honorable Americans consider worthy of taking the knee in defense of.
Published at Golfweek.com, September 26, 2017.