MEXICO CITY – Turns out there’s a reason why you don’t talk politics on the golf course.
It’s a harsh lesson to learn, particularly for a professional golfer. Just ask Ernie Els or Rory McIlroy.
For Els the toll came the week of the Genesis Open following a round of golf with President Donald Trump in South Florida. The Big Easy was anything but after enduring a barrage of criticism, mostly on social media.
Now it’s McIlroy’s turn to withstand the slings and arrows of a polarized social media universe. McIlroy, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, was so staggered by the reaction to his round with Trump on Feb. 19 that he tweeted a lengthy explanation of the round and why he felt compelled to play with the leader of the free world.
On Tuesday at the WGC-Mexico Championship, the world No. 3 dug even deeper, figuring a round of golf with the president of the United States wasn’t really an either/or option.
“I was a little bit taken aback by the blowback I received but I get why,” he said. “I was just doing what I felt was respectful and the president of the United States phones you up and wants to play golf with you, I wasn't going to say no, like I don't agree with everything that he says but it is what it is.”
It didn’t appear as if McIlroy put much thought into the alternative, turning down a round of golf with a sitting president, but it’s likely there would have been just as much “blowback” had he taken a hard pass on his round with the POTUS.
McIlroy, who hasn’t played since the second week of January as he recovered from a rib injury, still seemed stunned by the reaction his round with Trump has caused. Although he’s never been shy when it comes to addressing difficult topics, the 27-year-old’s initial take when asked about the round was slightly aloof.
“Played golf with some people . . . won’t go there,” he demurred.
But he did go there in detail, in fact.
For McIlroy, who has played his share of golf with dignitaries and politicians, the spectacle of playing golf with the president was profound. He said there were 30 Secret Service agents, 30 additional law enforcement officers and even snipers in the trees at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“It was just a surreal experience for me to see something like that. That was part of the reason I wanted to go and play,” he said.
This wasn’t a political statement. That’s not Rory’s style. Long before candidate Trump became president, McIlroy told a group of reporters last year as the PGA Tour mulled a possible move away from Trump’s property at Doral to Mexico City, “wouldn’t it be silly not to have some sort of relationship [with Trump]?”
During the same interview he was asked about the presidential campaign, which was just starting to heat up, and his point and political affiliations remain unchanged.
“I'm not an American, I can't change the way the political system is there. I can't vote,” he said on Tuesday. “I said this in Doral last year, even if I could vote I would have voted for an independent or someone else.”
It’s been a tough few weeks for those who choose not to hide behind platitudes and vanilla one-liners. Pat Perez was scrutinized last week after suggesting Tiger Woods might retire if he doesn’t play the Masters, and rookie Bryson DeChambeau caught similar heat for comments concerning his face-on putter that was deemed non-conforming earlier this year by the USGA.
Both players ended up walking those comments back, either to clarify or cool the room.
But McIlroy didn’t step to the podium on Tuesday to apologize. Instead, he attempted to explain his situation, his thought process and his position, that whatever your political affiliation it’s important to recognize that the bigger picture is often skewed by the heat of the moment.
“I'm sorry if I sort of pissed people off, but I felt I was in a position where I couldn't really do anything but say yes, respect the office even if you don't respect the guy that's in it, go play and go from there,” he said.
McIlroy isn’t blind to what his 18 holes with Trump means or the emotions his round stirred. But just as he knows there’s no room in golf for politics, there’s certainly no space for disrespect.