Rory McIlroy responds to Justin Thomas controversy

Rory Mcilroy justin thomas

Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas at the Payne's Valley Cup this September.

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As Rory McIlroy answered questions via virtual press conference on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, his screen froze up for a few moments.

“I’m not in charge of the Wi-Fi here,” he quipped. “I’m only answering questions.”

McIlroy may not be on golf’s IT team, but he’s certainly on its board of advisors. The 31-year-old speaks so thoughtfully that anytime he gets behind a mic, the event turns into a state of the union. Just Wednesday, he was asked about Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood and the European Tour’s strategic alliance with the PGA Tour.

But his most-scrutinized words were those on Justin Thomas, the top-ranked player in this week’s field, who has continually apologized after an offensive hot-mic utterance at the Tournament of Champions. McIlroy was characteristically thoughtful on the subject, condemning Thomas’ use of language while urging a measured response:

“I mean, I think he’s already responded really, really well,” McIlroy said. “I think he realized he made a big mistake as soon as it was brought to him last week in Hawaii, and he completely owned up to it. He said he messed up; he’s going to try to be better. And Justin is true to his word. He will be.”

In addition to sharing most of the last half-decade inside the top ten in golf’s world rankings, Thomas and McIlroy live just minutes from each other in south Florida and have played together a number of times on the PGA Tour. Westwood, Thomas and McIlroy posed for photos on Tuesday at a cake-cutting ceremony celebrating the 50th birthday of the United Arab Emirates.

Justin Thomas, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy at a cake-cutting ceremony on Tuesday in Abu Dhabi.

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“I’ve gotten to know Justin really well and he is as good a guy as they come,” McIlroy continued. “He’s got a lot of integrity, a lot of character. Obviously it doesn’t make what he said any better, but you know, I think in this day and age, it’s hard because it seems like you can’t — you’re not allowed to make a mistake anymore. Any mistake gets jumped on.

“Look, he made a mistake; he owned up to it, and he’ll be better because of it. He’ll maybe not be as maybe ignorant to things that are sort of — I’m trying to think of the right word here — that offend people, I guess. Obviously what he said was offensive to a large portion of the population, but again, he’ll be better for it. He’ll learn and he’ll move on, and look, he’ll be just as good a golfer as he’s always been, and if anything, it will probably just make him a better person than he already is, which is hard because he’s already a great guy.”

Thomas spoke on Wednesday as well, reiterating his commitment to learn from the incident.

“It’s humiliating. It’s embarrassing. It’s not me. It’s not a word that I use, but for some reason, it was in there,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to figure out as to why it was in there, and just like I said, it’s going to be a part of this process and training program or whatever I need to do, not only to prove to myself but prove to my sponsors and prove to those people that don’t know who I am that that is indeed not the person I am.”

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Thomas’ comments were his first since his longtime sponsor, Ralph Lauren, announced on Friday that it would be terminating its relationship with Thomas.

Tommy Fleetwood addressed the incident in remarks to reporters as well.

“Well, yeah, look, there’s positives and negatives about being able to hear what we’re saying out on the golf course,” he said. “I think as a viewer, you want to be able to hear things. I think it gives an amazing insight into the game. Look, it wasn’t good, and I’m sure he felt very, very bad about it — it’s definitely not what he would have wanted to say or wanted to happen.

“So look, that’s the world we live in. It’s difficult. People can hear everything, and you’re on the stage the whole time to set an example. Like one minor slip, I mean, look, how long does it take? A second? Two seconds? And then things change rapidly.

“So that’s the game. But Justin will learn and grow and that’s part of life, as well.”

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Dylan Dethier

Golf.com Photographer

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com, The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.