At the end of Rory McIlroy's Tuesday press conference at Royal Troon, he was asked about his decision not to play at the Summer Olympics in Rio, and whether there was any lingering regret. His answer took about 30 seconds, but the blunt honesty with which it was delivered—so rare in the painfully dull genre of golfer sound bytes—transformed it into a sort of verbal cattle prod, sending a jolt of near-fatal electricity up the delicate backside of the sport's self-reverential mythology. Please read the exchange in full:
Q. Jordan just said a little while ago that pulling out of the Olympics is the most difficult decision that he's ever made. He'll agonize watching the opening ceremony and you guys competing. I know it's been a few weeks, but do you have any sadness, any disappointment? Secondly, do you guys feel that maybe you've let the game down a little bit considering non golf fans will be watching in Rio?
RORY McILROY: Honestly, I don't think it was as difficult a decision for me as it was for him. I don't feel like I've let the game down at all. I didn't get into golf to try and grow the game. I got into golf to win championships and win major championships, and all of a sudden you get to this point and there is a responsibility on you to grow the game, and I get that. But at the same time that's not the reason that I got into golf. I got into golf to win. I didn't get into golf to get other people into the game.
WHAT?! How dare he! This is purest heresy, and I'm frankly shocked that the ghost of Bobby Jones didn't drop a chandelier on his head as the ghost of Cliff Roberts played the Masters theme song on a nearby organ.
Rory doesn't seem to understand that the phrase "grow the game" has become a cult-like mantra in golf, evoking the unfulfilled historical promise of "people's champions" like Arnold Palmer, and future visions of poor people flooding municipal golf courses, leaving behind empty ghettos, barrios, and slums. Never mind that actually growing the game in any significant way is an implausible fantasy in 2016. Never mind that golf just witnessed an era dominated by an insanely popular and iconic champion who won at a rate that will probably never be duplicated and also happened to be black—aka the "perfect storm" of broad appeal—and still the game did not grow. Never mind that golf's two defining traits are that it costs lots of time and money in an age when young Americans have less of both, and depleted attention spans. Never mind that Olympic golf has become an embarrassing farce and is going to be euthanized by the IOC in 2017 and would have succumbed to that same fate even if Rory went to Rio, shot four straight 59s, cured Zika and revealed himself as the living embodiment of the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the city.
Never mind all that—Rory committed the cardinal sin of being flippant in the face of scripture.
OK, let's cut the sarcasm, even though sarcasm is the best and perhaps only way to deal with the controversy following Rory's quotes—which the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, waving the largest pitchfork, called "an insult to everyone who goes and plays," before claiming that Rory will "regret those words for the rest of his life." Before we get into the substance of the idea that Rory owes his sport something beyond winning tournaments and not embarrassing the powers-that-be by filling the police blotter, there are a few side issues that are worth mentioning for context. Such as:
1. Olympic Golf is an unmitigated disaster. The format is boring (even though I graciously suggested a perfect fix more than a year and a half ago), the course was built on a nature preserve by a shady billionaire who will turn the entire area into screw-the-poor luxury housing when the tournament is over, and anyone who plays risks coming home with a debilitating virus that could potentially kill them or lead to deformities in any children they plan to have in the near future. Full disclosure: Two different outlets offered me a trip to Rio to cover the Olympics, which is a lifelong dream, and I said no to both because I want to have children soon. Even if Zika is a minor risk, it's one not worth taking.
2. The very concept of the Olympics has been an anxiety nightmare to Rory for years. His country has treated his decision on whether to suit up for Ireland or the U.K. as the final word on the centuries-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants, putting undue political pressure on a man who plays professional golf for a living and has done his damnedest to maintain a facade of religious and political neutrality in a place where the failure to do so could have dangerous consequences—as his Catholic great uncle learned, years ago, when he was gunned down in front of his family for the crime of living in a Protestant neighborhood. This man has no great love for the institution of the Olympic Games.
3. Rory is incredibly honest, by golfer standards. That's something we should encourage rather than punish, unless we're content let the last splashes of color fade from the sport as the corporate agents of doom suck us down into a stifling boggy hellscape of Nantz-ian cliche and endless shilling.
That all being said, let's examine the premise—is Rory wrong disavowing any responsibility to "grow the game"?
No. There's no rule that says he must become an evangelical missionary for the sport he plays. He wins golf tournaments, he does the obligatory charity things, and he functions as an ambassador by virtue of his personality and skill. In other words, he does exactly what every other golfer does, and asking him to pull off the impossible and make golf great again is both unfair and unrealistic. If he's selfish, it's only because he exists in a world of profound selfishness that we have enabled by virtue of wealth and ideology—not because he's especially sinister. And in fact, I've always found that Rory is remarkably smart and grounded for someone in his position.
When Donald Trump told Golf Digest that golf should be an "aspirational game," and even "elitist," he was getting at a crude kind of truth—by and large, this is a sport for rich people. Yes, there are semi-affordable ways to play golf in America, and there are non-traditional golfers who take advantage, but the fact that those opportunities technically exist shouldn't obscure the difficulty in finding them, or the cultural barriers that exist alongside the financial ones. There has been endless hand-wringing about the problem of "growing the game," but it's long past time that golf sees itself for what it is: A niche sport that will inevitably decrease in size, but that remains in strong financial shape at the American professional levels, and whose survival is not in any real danger.
Olympic golf was a good idea in theory, and the notion that it represented some great democratic outreach was not that huge of a stretch, even if the democratic impulse went hand-in-hand with capitalism. When I interviewed Tim Finchem in late 2014 and asked about the Olympics, he was open about the fact that he was trying to expand the sport in countries like China and Russia where winning gold medals is a priority. And he has a precedent to point to. As Golf Digest noted in its August issue, the International Tennis Federation had 147 member countries in 1988, the year tennis first became an Olympic sport. It now has 211.
“We found that 80-something of the countries that invest money in sports from the national government will only invest if it’s on the Olympic program,” he said at the time. "It will have the effect of opening up governmental coffers...Golf is an expensive sport to get going because of the facilities that need to be put in, the Olympics will have a positive effect on that, as well as softening the attitude that it’s an elitist sport."
Finchem is a very smart man and a strong commissioner, and his approach here was typically astute. They made a mistake with the format and got historically unlucky with the location, but there were good, intelligent intentions behind the endeavor. It just so happens that the wheels came off, but the blame doesn't belong with the players. Blame bad fortune, blame the institutions, and blame the reality of modern life. Blame Tahitian mosquitoes, if you want. But don't blame Rory McIlroy, because there's nothing he or any other golfer could have done to rescue golf's version of the Titanic.
The correct conclusion here is that myriad systemic issues turned a solid idea into a blunder, and those systemic issues are complex and likely insoluble. The lazy conclusion is that if Rory had just shown some integrity and gone to Rio, he would have marched into the favelas with his driver raised above his head, Pied Piper-like, and been followed by a teeming, joyous mass of street urchins as he led a one-man golf revolution. Real life doesn't work that way, and only a facile mind would consider a problem like Olympic golf and decide that the solution was a lone scapegoat. Free Rory.