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McIlroy in predicament over Olympic affiliation

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On Sunday Rory McIlroy won the BMW Championship. On Monday he won what may turn out to be an even greater contest for cultural context.

It is mathematically telling that McIlroy’s 495-word open letter that he released to the public via his Twitter account was just 17 more words than the total amount of world ranking points (478) he’s collected this season, the most by anyone; and just 37 words short of his combined winning stroke-totals (532) the last two weeks at the BMW and Deutsche Bank championships.

Or maybe it’s as simple as 3.2, that’s McIlroy’s lead over No. 2 Tiger Woods in the world ranking, and yet the headlines on Monday fixated on an event that will be held four years from now in Brazil. An event that McIlroy, or anyone else for that matter, hasn’t even qualified for.


Video: McIlroy's dominance and Olympic delimma


Instead of marveling at the 23-year-old’s play of late, the talking points have drifted to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and comments McIlroy made last week to the Daily Mail as to his intentions to play for either the United Kingdom or Ireland.

“What makes it such an awful position to be in is I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British than Irish,” McIlroy told the Daily Mail.

In some Irish and British circles this comment was viewed as tacit acknowledgement of McIlroy’s intentions to play for the United Kingdom when golf returns to the Games, which is his right having grown up in Northern Ireland.

The media storm that followed prompted McIlroy’s open letter. “I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics,” he wrote.

But then the one thing McIlroy doesn’t appear capable of buying these days is the benefit of the doubt. Unrealistic expectations have become the norm for the Ulsterman, first with comparisons to Woods following his eight-stroke masterpiece last month at the PGA Championship and now this, a nationalist corner many seem determined to back him into.

This is not an attempt to dismiss the religious and political divide that still exists in Northern Ireland. During a trip to Belfast last year while researching a feature on McIlroy your correspondent was surprised to learn that our visit corresponded with the marches, which occur each year on July 12 and sometimes still result in violence.

Some speculate that it is the marches that prompted the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to slow play a possible return of the Open Championship to Royal Portrush, which is the only venue outside of England and Scotland to host the event.

But this isn’t about politics or religion. It is about a young man who, at least to some on both sides of the Ulster border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, transcends these historical divides. McIlroy’s family is catholic but he grew up in a fairly protestant neighborhood and attended a protestant school.

He has also been quick to point out how influential the Golfing Union of Ireland was to his development and wrote on Monday, “I am a proud product of Irish golf.” Having been born in 1989 it’s also worth noting that McIlroy was never exposed to the troubles.

“My honest opinion is he is transcending the sport in this country. He is a wonderful example of a modern thinking individual. We are blessed to have him and we should be celebrating him instead of getting caught up in old arguments,” said Shane O’Donoghue, an Irish journalist who has covered McIlroy since he was a teenager. “What he is doing is unique. Because of his youth he has never gotten caught up with what is an old issue.”

There is a growing fear that when the time comes McIlroy will sidestep the issue and simply not participate in the 2016 Olympics, which, given his current lofty status, would be a shame for the Games and McIlroy.

For now, however, McIlroy is proving to be a youthful voice of reason, focusing instead on his historic summer and the looming Ryder Cup, where no one questions his loyalties.

There will be plenty of time in the years before the ’16 Olympics to dissect McIlroy’s choices, but that time is not now. He will have to make tough decisions, but until then the only unrealistic expectations he should have to face need to be on the golf course.