Tom English: Rory McIlroy refusing to be a pawn

Rory McIlroy and fellow Northern Irishmen have faced awkward questions about their allegiance. Picture: Getty
Rory McIlroy and fellow Northern Irishmen have faced awkward questions about their allegiance. Picture: Getty
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IN the dismal business of Rory McIlroy’s “cultural identity” and who he should and shouldn’t feel allegiance to – Ireland or Britain – ahead of golf’s introduction to the Olympics in Rio in 2016, the Irish journalist, Eamon Lynch, called it right when he said that the best thing McIlroy can do now is marry his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and declare for Denmark.

It was a comment made in jest but it summed up perfectly the hopeless situation McIlroy finds himself in.

Darren Clarke. Picture: Getty

Darren Clarke. Picture: Getty

McIlroy, as any number of newspapers and radio shows in Ireland last week pointed out, has been Irish, in golfing terms, for his whole career. He played 16 times for the Irish Boys team, eight times for the Irish Youths and 21 times for the Irish Seniors. He played under the Irish banner when he played in the Walker Cup at Royal County Down in 2007. When, as a professional, he played in the World Cup in 2009 and 2011 he did so for Ireland.

Last week, in the Daily Mail, he announced that he has always felt more British than Irish. The reaction from those who claimed him as their own has been a mixture of hurt and anger. His words came as a surprise on many fronts. Firstly, why would he want to get involved in the nationalism question right now, when there is so much other good stuff going on in his career. He has big wins coming out of his ears and a Ryder Cup to come?

Secondly, why would he ever want to get involved in the nationalism question?

What was the upside of saying that he feels more British than Irish? Why go there when he knew what would happen as a consequence?

Graeme McDowell. Picture: Getty

Graeme McDowell. Picture: Getty

We bemoan golfers – and sports stars as a whole – for not being honest, for giving us platitudes instead of insight. In this instance, we could forgive McIlroy for sitting on the fence given the toxicity of the topic.

It was back in 2009 when McIlroy first mentioned that he felt a greater allegiance to Britain and he got grief for it. But he seemed to learn that speaking out just wasn’t worth it. Too many people with agendas out there. Too many people trying to drag him into a conflict that he knows nothing about – and cares even less.

McIlroy, like Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, has since played a straight bat to the nationalism question, knowing that no good will come from speaking his mind.

Ask McDowell about his identity and he’ll say the same thing every time, as if reading from a script. Sport has no religious boundaries and no political boundaries, he will say. Sport is sport. Off the record he’ll expand a little on the subject’s complexities and why he has to remain non-committal.

When asked, Clarke has, on occasion, simply replied that it’s complicated and has left it at that. The big man has a stomach for most things, but not for the politics of his homeland and some of the poisonous individuals who might jump on his words and use them against him. And how could you blame him for that?

In May 2010, McIlroy was just shy of his 21st birthday and had just won his first victory on the PGA Tour – an absolute romp at Quail Hollow, sealed with a final-round 62 that made the world go ‘wow’. The winner’s press conference meandered along in the usual way with questions about club selection and his mindset and Tiger and the emergence of some young guns in the game. He handled it all with his customary charm. Then out of the blue came a query about home.

It was a question that he would, no doubt, have anticipated and it was one that he was ready for. “I’ve always wanted to ask you this,” began the reporter. “Do you consider yourself more Irish than British?”

“Pass,” replied McIlroy. “I’m Northern Irish, I hold a British passport, so there you go.”

He has pretty much avoided the issue until last week and, along the way, there have been reminders of why he was wise to do so.

In the hour of his first major championship victory, as he left the 18th green at Congressional following his victory in the US Open, somebody in the gallery threw a Tricolour around his shoulders. It stayed in place for about a millisecond and then it was gone. Straightaway a Facebook group appeared on which the loyalist community in Northern Ireland celebrated McIlroy’s supposed rejection of the flag of the Republic. There was a lot of traffic on that page. It got 7,000 “likes”.

This was the wearying nonsense that McIlroy has tried to avoid. He wasn’t rejecting the Republic and wasn’t embracing the Union, he was merely refusing to be a pawn in the game of the people who view these things with importance.

This is a modern kid, a boy of the new Northern Ireland, not the old. Since he came to prominence, McIlroy has had to walk this political tightrope with two sides pulling at him. If Scotland becomes an independent nation, Andy Murray will have to deal with conflicting voices of his own, albeit without the sinister aspect that dogs McIlroy.

His story is not easily analysed. He is a Catholic who was raised in a part of County Down where support for nationalism is small. Holywood is more British than Irish. Before he was born, McIlroy’s great-uncle Joseph was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in the area of east Belfast where he lived. To some, that horrible event might have sparked an empathy with Irish nationalism, but it never did. Once upon a time, Muhammad Ali said that he was “free to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be”.

McIlroy might empathise with the words of the great man.

Why speak out now? Only McIlroy will know the answer to that one. And only McIlroy will know what he truly feels about these Rio Olympics and whether he wants to play in them or not.

He says he does, but then they all do. Every golfer lauds the Olympics and speaks of how proud they would be to play in the Games and what a majestic honour it would be to win a medal. How many of them are actually telling the truth as opposed to trotting out the party line is another question.

The Olympics need McIlroy but does McIlroy need the Olympics and the grief that declaring for one side or the other would bring?

Maybe the Denmark suggestion isn’t so bonkers. Or better still, go on holiday that fortnight, Rory. And leave the bullshit behind.