Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

If we want the Best we have to back our future McIlroys

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 10: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks across the sixth green during the final round of the 2011 Masters Tournament on April 10, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Not since George Best have we had a sportsman like Rory McIlroy on the cusp of superstar status. He was so near and yet so far to winning the US Masters.

Even though he didn't, he is arguably the most famous living Ulsterman on the planet today outside of Ian Paisley. Given that 200 countries took television coverage of his performance at Augusta, he is well on his way to the number one spot.

George Best played the Beautiful Game, which is in a class of its own as far as global popularity is concerned.

However, thanks to television, other sports, such as golf and tennis, have expanded phenomenally and are attracting enormous investment and sponsorship, making stars such as McIlroy rich beyond belief.

Countries everywhere are recognising that sporting success is inspirational and promotes patriotic pride. Governments invest billions in the search for medal-winners and champions.

For Northern Ireland to boast two of the world's top 10 golfers, in McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, is simply staggering.

Among the top 10 courses in the world, two are also from here - Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. I hope Tourism Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland recognise and capitalise on the global value of McIlroy and McDowell as ambassadors. They should be signed up now to market the province.

Success at sport is an enormous fillip for any community. From George Best to Mary Peters winning gold in Munich in the dark days of the 1970s; from Dennis Taylor to Hurricane Higgins, world champions in the television heyday of snooker; from Barry McQuigan to Joey Dunlop; from John Watson and Eddie Irvine to our present day stars, McDowell, McIlroy and Tony McCoy, the collective value to Northern Ireland of their success on the international stage is immeasurable.

Each one in his or her own right has helped to put this small province on a giant map.

As a 19 handicap golfing hacker myself, I marvel at McIlroy's skills. Standing beside his proud father, I was privileged to witness McIlroy on the first tee for his first-ever round at Augusta two years ago.

In front of 25,000 of America's most-knowledgeable golfing fans, he was the new face of Northern Ireland. They called him 'Young Roar-rie' and strained in awe to catch a good view of his shots.

Even then, though only 19, he was seen as something special by the US media and spectators. Today he is almost more famous for having lost the 2011 Masters than if he had won.

Given the size of the our population and the limitations of facilities, coaching and financial support, we have no right to lay claim to so much sporting excellence. Yet we do and, what's more, we have great expectations.

The crowd at Windsor Park may chant 'We're not Brazil', but if the Brazilians turned up in Belfast, might we be annoyed if Northern Ireland didn't manage at least a draw?

Sporting expectations run high here. Is that adequately reflected in the level of investment in not just sporting talent, but also at school and grassroots level? Budgets are being cut. Sport, like the arts, is an easy touch for the bean-counters.

For example, thousands of schoolchildren in this province have no physical education in their daily curriculum. In some instances, I am told that the access to exercise which was on offer is now being denied because of the financial squeeze on public expenditure.

The Government and health officials tell us the modern-day scourge of our society is obesity, but if the sports facilities for physical well-being and development are curtailed because of cost, we are simply cutting off our fat noses to spite our fat faces.

Most sports are organised on an all-Ireland basis, or linked to Great Britain. Young potential stars must travel to the Republic or to England, or even further afield, to find the coaching expertise and competition to improve their skills.

That costs money and considerable personal sacrifice for the families fortunate enough to have a star in the making.

Imagine if the talent of Rory McIlroy had not been recognised at an early age as thankfully it was. Or that he had not the chance to develop further as he has done so brilliantly. Imagine if facilities, or financial support, had been a factor which hindered him reaching his goals. What a waste that would have been - and yet can we be sure it is not happening today to any of our young people who might be the stars - the Rory McIlroys - of tomorrow?

To win we must invest. Northern Ireland's sporting life must not go begging.

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