Sports, politics collide again as Mickelson, McIlroy address voting rights and Texas passes anthem bill

Phil Mickelson (right) and Rory McIlroy found themselves answering questions about Georgia’s controversial voter suppression law before the start of the Masters in a week when sports and politics intersected in a variety of ways. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Professional golfer Rory McIlroy is a lot of things.

He is a U.S. Open winner, a two-time winner of the PGA Championship and a winner of the British Open. McIlroy, along with all-time great golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, is one of just three players in the sport’s history to win four majors before his 25th birthday.

Born in Northern Ireland, though, McIlroy is not a citizen of the United States, something he believes allows him to offer a different perspective when the worlds of sports and politics collide, as they often do. So when McIlroy, along with Phil Mickelson, was asked his opinion of the controversial new Georgia voting laws, the 31-year-old who resides in Jupiter, Florida, didn’t hesitate to share his thoughts.

“I’m all for getting people to get out and vote,” he said in a press conference on the eve of the Masters, which began Thursday. “I’ve chosen to live in this country because I believe this country is the best country in the world. And so I – you know, America is the land of opportunity, and it’s the American dream. You work hard; you get rewarded. So I believe in all of that stuff.”

Along with a bill that passed in the Texas Senate Thursday declaring that professional sports teams must play the National Anthem before events, Georgia’s new laws are among the latest examples of topics that sit firmly at the crossroads of sports and politics.

A law that aims to tighten absentee voting requirements, Georgia’s measure, according to supporters, will preserve election integrity, while opponents believe it makes it harder for certain people in underrepresented communities to cast a ballot.

The Texas senate voted in favor of a bill that would require any professional sports teams with contracts with the state government to play the national anthem before the start of a game. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On April 2, Major League Baseball announced its decision to relocate its All-Star game from Atlanta to Colorado in response to the law, sparking questions of whether golf would make a similar move as the sport prepared for the 2021 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.

“I believe, as does everyone in our organization, that the right to vote is fundamental in our democratic society,” Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday. “No one should be disadvantaged in exercising that right, and it is critical that all citizens have confidence in the electoral process. This is fundamental to who we are as a people.”

McIlroy wasn’t the only high-profile golfer asked to weigh in on the matter. Three-time Masters Tournament champion and former Arizona State golfer Mickelson said he is fairly unfamiliar with the new laws, though he hopes his home state of California can “lead by example” and that other states “will follow suit.”

“I do believe in the rights and treating all people equal,” Mickelson said.

Golf, more than other sports, is connected to the state of Georgia with some of its largest events held in the state. The Masters and Augusta National, the tournament’s home, are synonymous. In addition to the Masters, the PGA’s Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup, is held annually at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. The PGA of America is also set to hold the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in June.

The PGA Tour and PGA of America released separate statements Saturday regarding the new state laws, each stating that they will not be relocating their events out of the state due to financial commitments to various local charities centered around diversity, equity and inclusion. Both organizations also noted that their decision to hold their events in Georgia should not indicate that they are apathetic to potentially suppressive laws.

“The PGA Tour fully supports efforts to protect the right of all Americans to vote and to eliminate any barriers that may prevent citizens’ voices from being heard and counted,” the PGA Tour said in the statement. “It is the foundation of our great country and a critical national priority to listen to the concerns about voter suppression, especially from communities of color that have been marginalized in the past, and work together to make voting easier for all citizens.”

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Added McIlroy on the PGA Tour’s charitable efforts: “Me, as a PGA Tour member and as a golfer, we go to a lot of different communities. Obviously the Tour Championship is in Atlanta, but I think what the PGA Tour have done with the East Lake Foundation and the rejuvenation project that’s happened in that community in Atlanta has been a wonderful thing that the PGA Tour has been involved with.”

Had the PGA Tour or PGA of America opted to move events out of state, the decision would not have been unprecedented. MLB’s decision to relocate this summer’s All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver’s Coors Field prompted comments from multiple political figures, including current president Joe Biden and former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

“The very people who are victimized the most are the people who are the leaders in these various sports,” Biden said. “And it’s just not right. This is Jim Crow on steroids, what they’re doing down in Georgia.”

Trump encouraged his followers to “boycott baseball and all of the woke companies that are interfering with free and fair elections,” while Obama praised MLB for “taking a stand on behalf of voting rights.”

Georgia governor, Republican Brian Kemp, offered his comment, too.

“Major League Baseball caved to fear and lies from liberal activists,” Kemp said. “They ignored the facts of our new election integrity law and they ignored the consequences of their decision on our local community.”

The situation is controversial and each sporting organization has handled it differently. Golf is trying to have a positive impact, Ridley believes, while keeping some of its biggest events in Georgia.

“We realize that views and opinions on this law differ, and there have been calls for boycotts and other punitive measures,” he said. “Unfortunately, those actions often impose the greatest burdens on the most vulnerable in our society. And in this case, that includes our friends and neighbors here in Augusta who are the very focus of the positive difference we are trying to make.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jacob Rudner expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Rudner, who also is an intern at Sun Devil Source of 247Sports, is a reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.