Tiger Woods is the face of golf. He always will be.
For all of Woods' on-course greatness, he -- much like Michael Jordan -- rarely stood out as a champion of causes greater than the game. He has been apolitical, golfed with Republicans and Democrats alike. Never rocking the boat, usually choosing to wade into waters not directly connected to the game of golf. Rarely being a voice for other players to follow when events of the world shatter the bubble of privilege golfers and the PGA Tour often find themselves encased in.
That's no knock against Woods. That's his decision. But golf, a game that has lagged behind the times by decades needs a voice for the current era.
Rory McIlroy has shown himself to be that voice and leader golf -- a sport that is having problems arriving in the 21st century -- needs its star to be. He spoke up again Wednesday when he criticized President Donald Trump's response and attitude toward the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“We’re in the midst of something that’s pretty serious right now and the fact that he’s trying to politicize it and make it a campaign rally and say we’re administering the most tests in the world like it is a contest -- there’s something that just is terrible,’’ McIlroy, who will play Sunday in the TaylorMade Driving Relief skins match at 11 a.m. PT on NBC and Golf Channel, said on the McKellar Podcast. “It’s not the way a leader should act. There’s a sort of diplomacy that you need to have, and I don’t think he’s showing that -- especially in these times.’’
McIlroy has golfed with Trump in the past and has said he respects the office and didn't want to wade into the American political waters. But as the world faces the ongoing public health crisis, and McIlroy and his fellow players prepare to return to course in June, the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world felt the need to speak up and noted he didn't think he'd be golfing with Trump again.
McIlroy, a native of Northern Ireland from humble beginnings, has increasingly used his platform as the golf's biggest non-Tiger star to address important issues other players shy away from.
The four-time major champion called out Muirfield golf club in 2017 for waiting that long to allow women to golf at the famed course, calling it "obscene." Earlier this year, when other stars like Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka chose to take a handsome payday to play in Saudi Arabia, McIlroy turned down the $2.5 million offer they made him amid an outcry that kingdom authorities are trying to "sportswash" their oppression of women's rights and ethnic minority rights.
“You could say that about so many countries, not just Saudi Arabia, but a lot of countries that we play in that there’s a reason not to go, but for me, I just don’t want to go. One hundred percent, there’s a morality to it as well," McIlroy said.
When the prospect of leaving the PGA to join the new Premier Golf League arose, McIlroy was the first to shoot down the idea of joining a league with 60 shareholders, the Saudi Public Investment Fund among them.
“Money is cheap. Money is the easy part. That shouldn't be the driving factor,” McIlroy said in March. “For some people it is and we're professional golfers and we're out here playing golf to make a living, but at the end of the day, I value my freedom and my autonomy over everything else.
“I would like to be on the right side of history with this one, just sort of as Arnold [Palmer] was with the whole Greg Norman thing in the '90s,” McIlroy said. “I value a lot of other things over money, and that's sort of my stance on it at this point.”
Soon after that statement, other top players -- including Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm -- followed McIlroy in saying they also wouldn't be joining the PGL, effectively making the league dead on arrival. Koepka, who has a budding rivalry with McIlroy, even phoned the world No.1 to discuss the decision.
McIlroy drove the point home a week later at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I didn’t really like where the money was coming from either, and I wanted to be the first one to speak out against it, and I’m glad that I have,” McIlroy said.
When every other sports league was shuttering due to the coronavirus pandemic, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced the Tour would continue just without fans. Following the opening round of The PLAYERS Championship, McIlroy disagreed with the decision and asked the tour to test every player, caddie and employee and to suspend all play if there was one positive test.
“We need to shut it down then,” McIlroy said March 12 when asked what to do if someone on tour tests positive for COVID-19. “And that’s the thing, more than anything else: We need to get, everyone needs to get tested. … I think for us to keep playing on Tour, all the Tour players and people that are involved need to get tested and make sure that no one’s got it. Because, obviously, everyone knows you can have it and not have symptoms and pass it on to someone that’s more susceptible to getting very ill from it.”
Hours later, Monahan, with a nudge from the world No. 1, reversed course, canceled THE PLAYERS and postponed play indefinitely, citing the closure of Disney World and concerns from top players as the reason for changing his decision. McIlroy's comments no doubt were a driving factor in getting the PGA to fall in line with every other sport.
Golf and the PGA have lagged behind their counterparts at almost every turn for decades. Its stars content with the status quo, not wanting to ruffle feathers or rock the boat. The sports has an optics problem it can't shake. It's tied to wealth, privilege and exclusivity. The PGA didn't take out the "caucasian only" stipulation in its bylaws until 1961, and women have had to fight to be members at some of the world's most prestigious clubs well into the 21st century.
Golf has never been seen as a sport for everyone and anyone. Its best ambassadors never choosing to help it grow along with the society that has passed it by. That's been fine enough for golf to survive and thrive -- thanks mainly to Woods' historic dominance.
While Woods' return to glory has sparked renewed interest in the game, golf also needs a voice for the current climate.
McIlroy, now 31, is comfortable with who he is, the personal journey and obstacles he's overcome and he has shown he can be the leader golf desperately needs to advance and evolve as the world changes.
There's no fence-sitting with McIlroy. He understands the power of his platform and the gravity his words bring.
Rory McIlroy will continue to be on the right side of history, and the game of golf is in good hands following the example set by its greatest leader.