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'Look around and smell the roses': Rory McIlroy on The Open legacy and progress in Northern Ireland

Rory McIlroy is hoping The Open Championship can have a positive impact on the wider society in Northern Ireland.
Rory McIlroy is hoping The Open Championship can have a positive impact on the wider society in Northern Ireland.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

The Open Championship can have a hugely significant impact on life in Northern Ireland, according to Rory McIlroy.

While the Holywood-born star recognises that NI has gone 'so far past' the dark days of the Troubles, the Stormont stalemate is an indication that much work is still to be done.

The region has now gone 921 days without a sitting goverment.

What McIlroy is hoping is that The Open Championship can play a big role in forging a path into a bright future.

Sport can sometimes achieve what politicians can't, or won't - depending on your viewpoint.

One of the greatest examples of a sporting star transcending his own arena is boxer Carl Frampton.

The Tiger's Bay born double world champion has legions of supporters from all sections of the community, something he has always been keen to protect.

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Now McIlroy is hoping the Open Championship can pack an even more powerful punch in Northern Ireland's drive into the future.

"It will be massive for the country," he said. "Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. This country sometimes needs that. (The Open) has the ability to do it.

"Talking of legacy, that could be the biggest impact this has outside of sport. People are coming here to enjoy it, have a good time and forget everything else that goes on."

McIlroy, while he says he has few big memories of the conflict, has endured some impact of our divided society.

Ahead of the 2016 Olympics, he had announced his decision to represent Ireland rather than Great Britain.

It sparked much furore and, after ultimately pulling out of the Rio Games due to concerns about the Zika virus, would even say he 'resented' the Olympics.

"It put me in a position where I had to question who I am, where am I from."

Four years on and McIlroy, once again, has confirmed his intention to play for Ireland. This time, however, he will see it through.

"At the start, I let other people's opinions of me weigh in on that decision," he said. "At the end of the day, it's my decision and I can't please everyone. The only people who care about who I represent don't mean anything. I don't care about them."

He would have regretted going through his entire career without sampling what is a unique sporting occasion and the Olympics would, once again, have been all the poorer for his absence.

Thank goodness it won't come to that.

"People have moved on," he said of his home country. "It's a very different time, a prosperous place. I grew up outside Belfast and I was oblivious to it (the conflict). I watched a movie, '71, a couple of years ago.

"It's about a British soldier that gets stationed at the Palace Barracks in Holywood, which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up and it basically follows him on a night of the Troubles and all that. I remember asking my mum and dad, is this actually what happened?

"Forty years on it's such a great place. Nobody cares who they are, where they're from, what background they're from. You can have a great life and it doesn't matter what side of the street you come from.

"I think that's what I was talking about about legacy of this tournament, to be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now.

"We're so far past that and that's a wonderful thing."

If McIlroy is delighted at one change to Northern Irish society, there's another aspect of life here that he's pleased is going to stay the same.

"I think that in golfing terms, the legacy could be young boys and girls are keen to pick a golf club up and play, not that I feel..." he pauses, thoughtfully.

"A lot of people I know and their kids, they all play golf. I feel like golf is a very accessible sport here. I'm very fortunate that I grew up here because it was so accessible and you didn't have to come from money or anything to play the game.

"So I think no matter what happens this week, if I win or whoever else wins, having The Open back in this country is a massive thing for golf."

He stresses that point; it doesn't matter if he wins.

Modest. Perhaps too much so.

But also mature.

And it's an attitude that he's hoping will bear fruit on the course.

"This is bigger than me," he says. "I don't feel like I'm the centre of attention.

"I think if you can look at the bigger picture and you can see that, it sort of takes a little bit of the pressure off. I still want to play well and concentrate and do all the right things, but at the same time just having that perspective might just make me relax a little bit more.

"I've always felt like I've played my best golf when relaxed and loose. Maybe that's what I need. I'm still going to concentrate but at the same time I can't just put the blinkers on. One of my mantras this week is look around and smell the roses.

"This is a wonderful thing for this country in general and to play a big part of it is an honour and a privilege. I want to keep reminding myself of that."

The Open is back and, not just Rory, we're all smelling the roses.

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