Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Rory McIlroy had to make a choice between Ireland and Team GB one day... but his focus must now return to the golf course

Graeme McDowell, left, and Rory McIlroy, right, will represent Ireland in the Olympics
Graeme McDowell, left, and Rory McIlroy, right, will represent Ireland in the Olympics

Rory McIlroy always knew this day would come.

He knew that sooner or later the choice between competing for Team GB and Northern Ireland or Team Ireland at the 2016 Olympics would have to be made.

And he knew that whatever his decision, it was going to cause controversy.

As far back as 2012, McIlroy was expressing concerns that some would seek to pigeon-hole him around the thorny issue of national identity.

At one stage he even said that he might play for neither team, such were the sensitivities around the matter.

The Good Friday Agreement stated that residents of Northern Ireland have the right to claim Irish, British or dual citizenship.

Because McIlroy was born in Holywood, he is a UK citizen and eligible for Team GB.

However, McIlroy is also Irish and played golf for Ireland as an amateur and also for the Irish World Cup team, so is eligible to play for Team Ireland at the Olympics.

Raised as a Catholic but with a

golfing base and home in Holywood, a predominantly Protestant area, McIlroy has always been careful about issues of religion and identity.

In 2011, after his victory at the US Open, he removed a tricolour that had been draped around his shoulders by an American.

Although he never made any firm commitment to play for Team Ireland or Team GB, McIlroy did hint towards the latter in an interview in September 2012 when he said he had “always felt more British than Irish” and had “more of a connection” to the UK.

The sensitivities around Irish identity meant his comments were quickly seized upon.

Within 24 hours of the interview being published, McIlroy issued a statement to “clarify” his comments.

He described himself as a “proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland”.

However, McIlroy added: “I am also a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That is my background and always will be.”

He described his position as “extremely sensitive and difficult” and said no decision had been taken about which team he would represent at the 2016 Games.

In January 2013, McIlroy said: “If there was a Northern Irish team I’d play for Northern Ireland.”

He even suggested he might not play at all in the 2016 Olympics because whatever decision he made would undoubtedly offend someone.

“Play for one side or the other — or not play at all because I may upset too many people... Those are my three options I'm considering very carefully,” McIlroy added.

However, competing at the Olympics is special, and boycotting the Rio Games was always the least likely option.

Thus a choice had to be made. By publicly declaring his intention to play for Team Ireland, McIlroy has addressed the issue head on.

Inevitably the decision has caused much discussion.

WIthin three hours of his comments yesterday, the story had been picked up by almost 300 news outlets across the world.

However, McIlroy will hope the controversy soon subsides and, with this weekend’s Irish Open, and the season’s third major - the Open at Hoylake - just around the corner, the focus can return to his performance on the golf course once more.

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