From left, former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush...

From left, former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama stand for the U.S. national anthem prior to Thursday foursome matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on Sept. 28, 2017, in Jersey City, N.J. Credit: Getty Images / Patrick Smith

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Not even the longest drive or the greatest putt could impress the top U.S. golfers as much as the gathering on the first tee did. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all were there, making the opening of the Presidents Cup spirited, memorable and, well, presidential.

“It was really cool of them. It’s very rare that you get three presidents in one place. Very rare. We should feel lucky for that,” Jordan Spieth said after he and Patrick Reed won their alternate-shot match against the International team’s Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo, 5 and 4. “They’re all avid golfers and have done a lot for the game, too. So it’s pretty awesome to have them there.”

The three former chief executives all received loud ovations and all posed with the actual cup, which will be presented on Sunday to the team that has at least 15 points. The Americans finished Thursday with a 3 ½-1 ½ lead, but the Internationals, who have been dominated in the biennial matches, avoided a total rout with a half in the final match as Phil Mickelson missed a birdie putt on No. 18.

Yet it was not the end of the day that was most distinctive. It was the start, as the former presidents mingled with golfers from both sides. Clinton even paused for a while after the last group went down the fairway so he could talk about strategy with a few golf writers.

The 42nd president spoke of a conversation he had with Phil Mickelson about how to play the windswept 427-yard dogleg left first hole, with a narrow creek on the left and a tree at the corner. To Clinton, it looked as if the tree was something to be avoided, possibly by laying up short of it. So, he asked Mickelson if a 3-wood was the right play. He added that Mickelson told him the smart route was to go left of the creek and the tree.

As someone came out to remind him it was time to go — “President Bush is waiting,” the man said — Clinton laughed and told reporters that for him and for his fellow amateurs, success on the hole would consist of just getting it in the fairway, “and not go in there,” he said, pointing to the water.

For the U.S. golfers, the theme of the day was hail to the chiefs.

“We know them all, which is kind of crazy to say, when it comes to former presidents,” Justin Thomas said after he and Rickie Fowler beat Hideki Matsuyama and Charl Schwartzel, 6 and 4, in the first match. “They love golf, too. They are pulling for us. Jimmie (Johnson, the caddie) and I were saying, `We just had three former Presidents of the United States on the first tee, cheering us on and shaking our hands and acting like we’re all boys. And it’s pretty unbelievable.”

Spieth, a Texan, said, “I’ve gotten to play a bit of golf with `W,’ and he absolutely loves it. He’s a nut for it, and the other two are known to be as well. Cool of them to show up. I know it’s the `Presidents Cup,’ but they certainly have busy schedules.” Spieth pointed out the imposing presence of another towering figure, Tiger Woods, an assistant U.S. captain: “He knows he affects the (opponents) when they are not used to playing with him, and so he knows it’s an advantage, having him around.”

But even Woods’ fame took a back seat this day. Reed said that the sight of the three former presidents “kind of gives you goose bumps.” As for the tee shot he struck while standing near them, he added, “I hit it left and got lucky it didn’t go in the hazard.”

No matter where the tee shots went, energy and goodwill engulfed the first tee at an event that lived up to its name. Clinton said of the golfers, “They all look good to me.”

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