Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Rory is a hero to us all - no matter what flag he flies

Who Rory McIlroy represents in Rio will be decided on the manicured greens of Hunan rather than Holywood, says Michael Wolsey

Tricky decision: Rory McIlroy's Olympic problem could be made easier by R&A chief Peter Dawson
R&A chief Peter Dawson
The back page story in the May 2 Belfast Telegraph

Rory McIlroy says he will make up his own mind about which country to represent at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil; a brave declaration, maybe even a foolhardy one.

It would certainly be a lot easier if he were to leave the decision to the Royal & Ancient, quaintly-titled rulers of European golf.

Its chief executive, Peter Dawson, has suggested that previous appearances for Ireland might bar the Holywood man from Team GB. Rory begs to differ, quoting a rule that says a player cannot be bound to a country if he has not played for them in the previous three years.

Maybe so. But leaving it all in the hands of the R&A would lift a heavy burden from McIlroy's slim shoulders. The same goes for Graeme McDowell.

Neither man should have had that burden imposed in the first place. The need to pick a flag to play under is dictated by commercial considerations, which have little to do with how golf is played, but a lot to do with where it is played.

The multi-millionaires who really do rule golf want to advance the game's 'brand' across Asia; in particular, they want to see it expand in China. That's why they were so keen to put golf back on the Olympic agenda, where it hasn't been since 1904.

These rich men know their business. There has been a surge of interest from China since the programme for Rio was announced and there will be a lot more when the Games get under way.

In this huge country, now rich, that will mean hundreds of new golf courses and tens of thousands of new golfers. Which is very good news for people who make golf equipment and golf clothing, for people who design golf courses and coach golfers.

"Our academy has seen more Chinese golf players coming for training at younger ages, most of them financially supported by their families,'' Huey Yu, president of a golf school in California, told the English-language China Daily newspaper.

Meanwhile, over in Ohio, Jason Straka is busy designing new courses for these future stars to play on. Two more will open this month – one at Shanghai and the other a couple of hours away, at Anji. "It's an exciting time for the growth of golf in China,'' said Straka's Hong Kong-based business partner, Dana Fry.

Now, you can see why it suits these folk very well to have Rory and Co lining out in national colours – any national colour will do – at the Rio Games.

It will go down well in Beijing, but not in Belfast, where, like most of Europe, we follow golfers as individuals, not as part of a team.

There is a Golf World Cup – that's where Rory last competed for Ireland – but, at the very top level, the only international competition to capture the public's imagination is the Ryder Cup and support for Europe in that tournament is more a reaction to American jingoism than a show of true affection for 'our' team.

Of course, we all like to see Rory and Graeme and Darren Clarke do well. It makes us proud when the local lads triumph.

But we don't need to assign them national colours, or a flag, to share in the warmth of their success. And, given the way loyalties divide here on almost everything, that is just as well.

The Olympics, of course, are all about nations competing against each other. And that's one reason why golf, the individual's game, should not be there. Another is that golf has tournaments it regards as bigger than the Olympics.

Olympic success should be the pinnacle of any athlete's achievement, as it is for runners, swimmers, rowers and most of the other folk who will gather in Rio three years from now.

But not for golfers. For them, the Masters, the Open and the other majors are bigger events and will remain that way.

The same consideration should have prevented the participation of tennis and professional football in the Olympics.

But the Olympic movement cares more for money and empire-building than it does for individual sports and it happily sucked them in, expanding further the bloated monster the Games have become.

So, if he plays at Rio, Rory must line out for either Britain or Ireland. Some people won't like his choice. I hope they don't take it out on the young golfer.

Rory gives us something important that is taken for granted elsewhere. In most countries, it is a commonplace thing, to rally behind a team, or sporting hero, and bask in the glow of irrational, shared loyalty. Sadly, this unifying emotion is one we rarely experience in divided Northern Ireland.

We badly lack the type of sporting heroes who can unite us in common cause. Rory McIlroy is one and it would be a shame if he were to be lost to half the community. There was no need to wrap him in national colours, but the die has been cast. He's one of our own and we should be proud of him – regardless of whether the band is playing Amhran na bhFiann or God Save the Queen when he stands on the winner's rostrum.

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