SAN FRANCISCO – Barry Bonds was inside the ropes following Tiger Woods, which was alternately causing both great amusement and great consternation to the fans at the Presidents Cup.
They couldn’t stop talking about how slimmed down Bonds seems now that he’s out of baseball. But he was still big enough that he kept blocking their view of the man they had really come to see – Tiger Woods – and a few weren’t shy about letting him know it.
Michael Jordan didn’t have that problem. Wearing an official windbreaker befitting his role as an assistant captain for the home team, he scooted around in a golf cart from hole to hole and no one was about to complain if he occasionally got in the way.
Besides, Jordan had a job. He was there to motivate, even if it cost him an afternoon without the company of even one lit cigar.
Jordan had talked to the young players on the U.S. team about believing in themselves while joining them in a practice round earlier in the week, an experience that left Sean O’Hair so in awe that he said he would someday tell his grandkids about it. No need to use the old trick of trotting out an aging president or two to give the team a spark when the greatest basketball player ever was so eager to please.
Not that there wasn’t some presidential star power on hand Thursday. Former President George H.W. Bush was sitting in the front row of the VIP section on the first tee at Harding Park when another former basketball great walked by.
“Jerry, do you know President Bush?” the woman next to Bush asked Jerry West.
It was that kind of day in the opening session of the Presidents Cup, a competition that every two years desperately tries to rise to the level of its older sibling, the Ryder Cup. It never does, but that doesn’t stop the PGA Tour from bringing in all the big names it can to schmooze with all the big sponsors it can find a way to round up.
Call it Ryder Cup Light because it seems to inspire more polite applause than fervent fandom. Maybe that’s because it takes some thinking to figure out that the U.S. versus the International team is basically the best American players against the best players who are from somewhere other than Europe.
But Jordan takes it seriously, perhaps too seriously. He’s so involved that he spent Monday playing the course with members of the U.S. team, nearly creating an incident when city officials were informed that he was smoking cigars on a municipal course where smoking is not allowed.
Some of the U.S. players were so awed by his presence that they would have gladly taken the rap for him. Jordan was about all they could talk about after the practice round, making it even more difficult for the PGA Tour to sell the idea that the late season event is all about players giving it their all for a patriotic cause.
That was why Jordan wasn’t on stage for the opening ceremonies Wednesday, which so upset the caddies for the U.S. players that most of them wrote red No. 23s on their caps for the opening round. But it didn’t keep him from the opening alternate-shot matches, where he went from hole to hole in his golf cart to confer with players and offer them advice.
“It’s not over yet,” he assured Lucas Glover on the eighth green after Glover and Stewart Cink fell two holes behind Ernie Els and Adam Scott.
That’s like telling Dennis Rodman not to stop rebounding midway through the first quarter of a Bulls game, but excuse Jordan because maybe he has just never been an assistant golf captain before. Indeed, the first round of matches mean little in the grand scheme of things, though on this day the Americans were good enough to win three and split one out of the six.
The large crowd at Harding Park seemed to enjoy it all, though they were relatively subdued. There were no “USA! USA!” chants like you hear in a Ryder Cup, perhaps because they’re so used to seeing players from both sides competing against each week after week on the regular tour.
Bonds seemed to enjoy himself, too. It took him a few holes to figure out that he had to get down on one knee so people could see over him, but after that he managed to be relatively unobtrusive. He even signed a hat for one fan as he walked between holes following Woods and Stricker as they won by a lopsided margin over Geoff Ogilvy and Ryo Ishikawa.
Then again, he might have had reason to be nice to the people of San Francisco, including those who kept remarking that his head looked two sizes smaller than a few years back.
Some of them might end up on his jury when the perjury case against him goes to trial.