The four-time major champion from Northern Ireland joined Trump Sunday for a round of golf at the Trump International Golf Club in Florida, prompting a flood of criticism on Twitter. McIlroy said he’d been called a bigot and a fascist.
“This wasn’t an endorsement or a political statement of any kind,” McIlroy said in a statement. “It was, quite simply, a round of golf. Golf was our common ground, nothing else.”
McIlroy told The Guardian he’s been interested in Trump’s rise. He said in his statement that he was invited to play with the president.
“The whole circus, this big show is intriguing to watch,” he said.
Trump is an avid golfer, but frequently criticized former President Barack Obama for time he spent playing, implying Obama was shirking his presidential duties. (Trump has also been frequently accused of cheating.)
Trump said he wouldn’t give up the sport, and would “always play with leaders of countries and people who can help us.” He has played multiple times in his first month in office.
Trump and McIlroy were scheduled to play a couple holes together on Sunday, but a White House press aide said Trump “decided to play longer.”
“He also had a full day of meetings, calls and interviews for the new [national security adviser],” Sarah Huckabee Sanders added.
McIlroy told golf site No Laying Up that Trump “probably shot around 80.”
“He’s a decent player for a guy in his 70s,” McIlroy said of the president.
Whether “you respect the person who holds that position or not, you respect the office that he holds,” McIlroy said of his game with Trump.
Other athletes have taken a different approach. After the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl LI win, at least six players said they won’t attend the team’s upcoming visit to the White House. And NBA stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry have been vocal about their distaste for the president.
At least one of McIlroy’s peers came to his defense. English pro golfer Ian Poulter on Friday tweeted his approval for McIlroy’s statement.