Johnstone hopes Trump controversy won't cloud Presidents Cup

Rebecca BRYAN

Jersey City (United States) (AFP) - The Presidents Cup golf matches tee off in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on Thursday amid a backlash against US President Donald Trump's criticism of social protests in sport.

Zimbabwe's Tony Johnstone, an assistant to International team captain Nick Price, said Monday that International players are focused on their bid for an upset victory, and don't want to be drawn into any political fray.

"It's got absolutely bugger all to do with us. And I don't think we're in a position really to talk about it," Johnstone said, adding that players drawn from countries around the globe had discussed it and agreed.

"We're here as sportsmen. We don't want to get inveigled in any political discussion," Johnstone, 61, said. "You've got to be careful ... It's an American thing. Americans will take care of it somehow whatever happens."

A wave of protests swept across the National Football League on Sunday after Trump escalated his feud with players who kneel during the US national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice.

Trump's decision not to receive the NBA champion Golden State Warriors at the White House -- after jabs from star Stephen Curry and others -- also sparked criticism.

US PA Tour player Peter Malnati pulled the issue into the conservative golf world with a tweet in support of the NFL protests.

"Those who kneel during the national anthem aren't disrespecting the heroes who sacrificed to defend the United States," wrote Malnati, who won his lone PGA Tour title at the Sanderson Farms Championship last year. "Those who kneel are pointing out that as a nation, we are not doing a good job of upholding the values for which people sacrificed."

Malnati also took aim at Trump himself, saying the current administration "has made it very clear they don't want the United States to be a nation that cares for those on the margins of society."

But Malnati, ranked 641st in the world, isn't among the elite gathered this week for the 12th edition of the Ryder Cup-style match play event.

- 'We're golfers' -

And Johnstone said he hoped the US players, a who's-who of the world's best led by world number one Dustin Johnson, second-ranked Jordan Spieth and including five-time major winner Phil Mickelson, wouldn't get drawn into a contentious debate to the detriment of the tournament.

"I hope they don't," he said. "We had a fantastic golf match and I hope it stays at that level. I just hope they don't get any pie on their face and just leave it alone. We're golfers."

But the debate over the anthem protests -- initiated by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 -- has moved beyond the NFL, with at least one Major League Baseball player taking a knee during the "Star Spangled Banner" and NASCAR motor racing driver Dale Earnhardt using Twitter to quote former president John F. Kennedy on Americans' right to peaceful protest.

Davis Love, the two-time US Ryder Cup captain who is serving as an assistant to US captain Steve Stricker this week, agrees with that.

But in comments to Sports Illustrated he, too, voiced doubts that this week's event at Liberty National Golf Club -- nestled on the shore of the Hudson River across from Manhattan and featuring stunning views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island -- was the right forum for such protests.

"Any athlete can protest. Whether it's LeBron James or Colin Kaepernick or me or anybody else, that's an American right," Love told Sports Illustrated, but added: "... sometimes you have to put personal statements and desires aside in the name of team unity and trying to reach a common goal.

"If I talked about President Trump's tweets and comments about the NFL and the Steph Curry and all that, I'd be putting myself ahead of the team," Love said. "And I can't do that. I have to put team first."

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