Rory McIlroy didn't ask to be a guinea pig. But he probably should've seen it coming.
The 27-year-old from Northern Ireland, a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, hit the links with U.S. President Donald Trump in West Palm Beach two Sundays ago. One photo went public, tweeted by Clear Sports CEO Garry Singer, who accompanied McIlroy, Trump and former MLB player Paul O'Neill.
— ClearSports (@ClearSportsLLC) February 19, 2017
McIlroy told the golf blog No Laying Up that the president asked him Saturday night if he could tee it up Sunday. McIlroy has spent time with Trump at such events as the WGC-Cadillac Championship, which used to take place at Trump National Doral Miami. McIlroy accepted the invitaiton and said of Trump afterward, "He probably shot around 80. He's a decent player for a guy in his 70s."
And then the former world No. 1 got absolutely shredded on social media.
— Dermot Looney (@dlooney) February 20, 2017
Breaking: British golfer Rory McIlroy plays golf with Trump. "This doesn't make me a prat", claims Rory. "Yes it does", says everyone else.
— Dustin The Turkey (@DustinOfficial) February 20, 2017
Rory McIlroy "Playing in the Olympics is too political"
**plays golf with Donald Trump**
— Robert (@amazibob) February 20, 2017
On Friday morning, a feature on McIlroy in The Guardian, by Ewan Murray, included details from the golfer about his relationship with Trump.
"I really got into it once Trump ran because I knew him a little bit but at the same time I was intrigued how a successful businessman could transition into running for the highest office in the land," McIlroy said. "It is a totally different process from the UK. He obviously came at it from a completely different angle."
Those quotes and another in which he said, "I don't really care about the policies," were more fuel for fan backlash, but McIlroy could have ignored the commentary. He socialized with an American president. That is not new for athletes. He could have just let this pass. He didn't. And that is why he set a precedent for marketable athletes in their prime.
On Friday afternoon, McIlroy tweeted for the first time since his presidential round. He sent out a personal note, saying he doesn't "agree with everything my friends or family say or do." He claimed he was not making an "endorsement" and he acknowledged being called "a fascist and a bigot" on social media. He clearly studied the Tom Brady Book of How To Be Donald Trump's Friend And Not Act Like You Agree With His Political Views.
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) February 24, 2017
Here's the thing. McIlroy joins a list of sports figures to engage with Trump since Election Day. During the transition period, Jim Brown, Ray Lewis and Floyd Mayweather Jr. visited Trump. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els hit the links with Trump.
Most of these people hit their relationship with Trump head-on, but an important distinction is that none are in their athletic prime, like McIlroy, with lucrative endorsements that could be jeopardized in this volatile political climate. Brown and Lewis explained their meeting in the elevator bank of Trump Tower and on TV for a week. Mayweather went to the inauguration, commending both Obama and Trump. Woods addressed his contact with Trump in a blog post.
McIlroy and Trump (and the White House) kept their round on the down-low, keeping pictures off their own social media. Clear Sports' Twitter page, which hosted the only public evidence of the outing, has only 130 followers. Word got out and McIlroy took heat.
McIlroy is the most recognized golfer in the world (who plays on a regular basis and is not named Tiger Woods). Last year, ESPN the Magazine ranked him the No. 19 most famous athlete in the world.
If it wasn't a big deal for McIlroy to hang out with the president, McIlroy would have moved on with his life. He wouldn't have sent a clarification tweet. Or, if he fervently agreed with the president's ideology, he wouldn't have needed to explain his situation.
Back in Northern Ireland, politicians from the UK province are organizing to limit the effects of Brexit, which Trump supported during his campaign for U.S. president. In the Brexit vote, Northern Ireland went 56 percent to 44 percent vote to remain in the European Union, and many locals fear fear the uncertainty with how the border may be regulated if the UK withdraws from the EU. The UK Parliament hosted a symbolic debate to insult Trump last week.
It doesn't matter if you agree with Trump's policies. It doesn't matter if you think an athlete should be able to meet with the president without being judged. The fact of the matter is people are going to react. The line between athletics and politics isn't as firm as it used to be among sports fans when it comes to Trump. And if athletes care about their image, perhaps more so than political ideology, then they need to be upfront in explaining a meeting with Trump.
Rory McIlroy showed us the way last week. Fans will judge athletes for meeting with the current American President. How athletes handle that is their decision. If they support him, they can own that support. Just ask Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson, Mike Ditka, Bob Knight and Natalie Gulbis. If they do not unconditionally support him -- or want to protect their image among the most voters/consumers possible -- they can prepare a meticulous, moderate statement. McIlroy, Brady, Brown and Lewis can tell you all about that. And Kanye West for that matter.
His statement was clean and to the point. It came late, but he felt the need to write it and he calmed the storm with it. Nike, Omega and Electronic Arts likely approve of this middle-ground opinion.
McIlroy will not be the first athlete to brush shoulders with Donald Trump. But the next one -- and his or her publicist -- will have this test case to learn from.
-- Follow Jeff Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband. Like Jeff Eisenband on Facebook.