Focus on Rory McIlroy’s return after a seven-week absence from competitive golf and any impact on Masters preparations could wait.
Inevitably, as he addressed the media before the WGC-Mexico Championship in Mexico, deepest intrigue surrounded that McIlroy golf match with Donald Trump.
McIlroy, who defended himself in a strongly-worded statement last Friday, admitted surprise at the level of negative reaction to his acceptance of an invitation from the US president.
He made a point of apologising to anyone who took umbrage. And yet, in what characterises the Northern Irishman to such an extent, he appears perfectly at ease with joining Trump on February 19th in Florida. “I guess I just approached it, as I said in my statement, as a round of golf,” McIlroy said.
“Anyone’s beliefs or politics or whatever, just put that to one side for a minute. To go there and see 30 secret service and 30 cops and snipers in the trees, it’s just – I mean, 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.
"If it had been Obama I would have gone to play. I've played golf with President Clinton, I've spent time with President Bush. I've been around quite a few presidents before and again, like putting beliefs and whatever to one side, I just wanted to have an experience that I might not ever get [again]; play golf with a sitting president.
“You can respect the guy, not respect the guy, I don’t care, but if someone has a chance to play in that scenario and just sort of experience the whole thing . . . it’s not as if we were speaking foreign policy out there. We were talking about golf and the grass that he put on the greens and the grass that he’s putting on the greens at [Trump-owned] Doral. We talked golf the entire day. I think he was happier to talk golf than anything else that he has to do these days.
“I’m not an American. I can’t change the way the political system or what’s going to happen. I can’t vote.”
McIlroy added: “I’m sorry if I 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. I actually enjoyed myself, I had a good time.
“Yes I was a little bit taken aback by the blowback I received but I get why. It’s a tough place to be in, it’s a tough position, and maybe if I look back on it I put myself in a position where I was going to get that from either side one way or the other. 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.”
McIlroy’s political awareness stems from his upbringing in the North. He swatted aside any notion of comparison between home and the US. “I feel like my generation has moved past all of that,” he said. “I feel with the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, people have become way closer together.”
McIlroy's path to fitness – he missed four tournaments from mid-January – included a bounce game with Dustin Johnson on Saturday. "I shot 65," said McIlroy, who could return to the summit of the world rankings with a win in Mexico. "We were joking; it was quite a week for me, I got to play with the president of the United States and the best golfer in the world."
There was also a recent McIlroy social meeting with Tiger Woods, whose status remains unknown as he encounters back spasms. "I had lunch with him last week and we had a great time," McIlroy said. "Just the two of us sat down. I think the good thing is he's in a good place. He's got other things in his life that he's interested in and it's not as if it's just golf. He's got other things and that's great. He struggled with his body over the past couple years and it's unfortunate because it just won't allow him to do what he wants to do.
“However long it is that it takes him to be healthy enough to get out here and play, even if he plays eight to 10 times a year, that’s a bonus for all of us.”
In Mexico, altitude will provide a stern test; the Club de Chapultepec lies more than 7,500ft above sea level. “Judging distances is going to be really tough,” McIlroy said. “I was hitting eight irons today 210 yards. It’s so hard to get used to and trust in your mind that that club is going to hit the ball that far.”
With that, we were back to McIlroy’s bread and butter. He would understandably prefer it to remain that way.