Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Holywood star deserves respect for making right call

Good move: Graeme McDowell has welcomed Rory McIlroy’s decision to compete for Ireland at the 2016 Olympics
Good move: Graeme McDowell has welcomed Rory McIlroy’s decision to compete for Ireland at the 2016 Olympics

Not only is Rory McIlroy entitled to consider himself a citizen of the United Kingdom or, indeed, Ireland ... he also must be accorded respect for whatever choice he makes.

That's an inalienable political right, which every person on this island has a duty to uphold.

However, the concept of Rory McIlroy, golfer, representing Team GB at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, made little sense in the sporting context.

Since boyhood, he was nurtured and grew on his local golf course at Holywood, Co Down, assisted from a young age by his own coach Michael Bannon and those of the Ulster Branch.

Since first pulling on an Irish jersey at age 14 to play in the 2003 Boys Home International Championships, he has represented the Golfing Union of Ireland, the sport's governing body on this island, in the international arena.

Like any Irish rugby or cricket international or Olympic boxer, his affinity to Ireland is founded on a sporting tradition which pre-dates partition and is utterly free of politics.

Which compounds one's discomfort that athletes representing Ireland in these sports have to play under flags of any hue or stand for anthems that are not really their own... but that's an argument for another day.

Jamie Spence, as Golf Team Leader for Team GB in Rio, naturally would have loved to have McIlroy on his side on 2016, saying: "My modus operandi is to try and win the gold medal and having someone like Rory on your team would make that easier.

"Being selfish, I'd have liked to have had him but I think Rory has made the right decision," added Spence, who also is a member of the European Tour's Board of Directors.

"That fact that he's been with Ireland all his time as a youth makes it the right decision. The most important thing for golf is that he's going to play at the Olympics."

Well said, Mr Spence. If or maybe I should say when McIlroy wins a medal in Rio, his achievement will reflect decades of work invested not just in him but many other golfers on this island by coaches and administrations who have built the clubs, the structures and traditions which make-up the Golfing Union of Ireland.

Looking back to the first day he pulled on an Irish shirt, McIlroy said: "It felt great. The first time you make a panel to go down for a weekend to Carton House or whether it's your first time at the Home Internationals or whatever, it's always a great thrill to get the call or get the letter from the team captain.

"Obviously, I've had some great memories in that shirt."

McIlroy has written so much history in golf on both sides of the border, from winning the Irish Close at the improbable age of 15 in 2005 to becoming the first 'man' since Joe Carr to retain that title the following year.

He won the European Amateur title for himself and also for Ireland in 2006 and played with Shane Lowry, among others, on the national side that won the European Team title in 2007, months before turning professional.

His decision inevitably will cause offence in some quarters.

But as Graeme McDowell described yesterday's announcement as a "contentious, complicated and complex issue", McIlroy surely is entitled to greater respect, not less, for opting to play golf for Ireland in Rio.

McDowell added: "I think it's great he's put it to bed at last, because it's not a question I want to keep answering over and over.

"To have Rory McIlroy representing Ireland at the Olympic Games is very special. I'm glad he's committed and that's cool.

"I'm hoping to be there alongside him. There's no doubt he'll be there. I just have to keep my game ticking over and hopefully I'll be there as well.

"Like I say, it's important that he's put that to bed. I've played alongside Rory at Ryder Cups and World Cups and things like that but really have no concept of what the Olympic Games is going to be like.

"It's the biggest sporting event on the planet."

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