Last summer Rory McIroy got plenty of backlash for making a comment that he didn’t get into golf “to grow the game,” that he got into it to “win championships and win major championships.” This came about after his announcement that he would not be playing in the Olympics and he was asked a question about “letting the game down.”
Well after the Olympics, Rory clarified his remarks, saying perhaps we went a bit far, and that “I hate that term ‘growing the game’. Do you ever hear that in other sports? In tennis? Football? ‘Let’s grow the game’. I mean, golf was here long before we were, and it’s going to be here long after we’re gone. So I don’t get that, but I probably went a bit overboard.”
He is right for so many reasons, on so many fronts. Specifically with respect to Olympic golf, Shane Ryan examined the economics and associated politics of it for Golf Digest. Taking it further, just because one can qualify for an Olympic team, doesn’t mean one is obliged to compete. Anyone who thinks Michael Phelps couldn’t rally and train well enough to qualify for at least a couple of events in Tokyo 2020 just hasn’t been paying attention. That doesn’t mean Phelps MUST get back in the pool.
Keep in mind that as the 27-year-old McIlroy was fielding these questions about whether or not skipping a 72-hole stroke play tournament shoe-horned into the heart of the competitive major championship season was "letting the game down," he had already competed in top-tier golf tournaments on five continents...multiple times. Rory has won significant golf tournaments against world-class competition on four continents, and lost in a playoff in South Africa.
Rory is also right about the fact that the leadership in other sports don’t typically tell anyone who will listen that they are working on “growing the game.” They just do it.
- In the spring of 1990 the Detroit Pistons were on their way to back-to-back NBA titles, and retired NBA coach Jack Ramsay traveled to Spain to conduct the inaugural NBA World Coaches Clinic with hundreds of coaches from across Europe.
- In 1992, Michael Jordan won his third (of five) NBA league MVP awards, and the NBA opened its first office outside of the Unites States, in Hong Kong.
- As of 2013 the NBA had international offices in 13 cities.
- The 2016 NBA Finals were broadcast in 47 languages to more than 200 countries and territories…and neither LeBron James nor Stephen Curry had anything to do that.
- MLB games are transmitted to 233 countries and territories in 17 languages.
- In an effort to compete with the ever-growing catalog of options for kids’ attention, MLB has dynamic grass-roots programming ranging from more than a half dozen Urban Youth Academies (in cities like Compton, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Houston) to their Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) baseball and softball World Series for 16 teams from the US and Caribbean in two age groups in each sport.
Global football is by any metric the most popular sport in the world. Soccer, here in America, is clearly in a growth phase. The sport is doing quite well if the transfer fees and worldwide television ratings are any indication. MLS, the largely US-based league in North America, has no shortage of cities and ownership groups vying for the next round of expansion. Atlanta FC, one of the two teams to join the league in 2016, is currently tied for third in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, you can find elite athletes mixing it up at clinics with groups of kids, and far and away they will enjoy doing it. They’ll take selfies, sign autographs, and spontaneously toss the odd souvenir into the crowd. They too were once those kids, jumping out of their own skin to play the sport they love anywhere, let alone alongside the people they watch on highlight reels, hoping to precisely replicate a signature move.
Later this year, Rory McIlroy will play in the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, CT, for the first time in his career. Appropriately, tournament director Nathan Grube is preparing for the largest crowds in tournament history because McIlroy will bring even more fans of all ages to the already heavily attended tournament, held the week after the US Open.
This is what it looks like when a sport’s top athletes do their part to grow the game. They go out and compete. They embrace the (often record) crowds who come out to support them. They pour everything they have into the game. And when they do it better than everyone else, they fly the W.
Rory was right, golf was here long before he was, and will still be here long after he walks off his last green. For now, let’s all hope he just keeps hitting his goals of “winning championships and major championships” for a good long time.