Can Rory McIlroy ever truly win wearing the Union Jack or the Green and Gold?

January 28, 2013 8:00 pm

Freshly unveiled as highest earning golfer after Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy is currently the number one player in the world and regarded by many as the future of the sport over the next decade. With apparel and clubs emblazoned with the ubiquitous swooshs of Nike, McIlroy has the financial security to now focus on fulfilling his immense potential. However, familiar political turmoil in his native Northern Ireland have threatened to derail the career of this precocious young man.

rory mcilroyA momentous year for sport in general, McIlroy was arguably one of the few British sporting stars to be relatively unheralded for some remarkable achievements. As a member of a demoralised and seemingly defeated European side, McIlroy was part of an astonishing fight back at Medinah to clinch the Ryder Cup for the second successive time in improbable circumstances (helped by a state trooper who whisked McIlroy to the first tee on the final day after he slept in). This followed a second Major victory for the young man from Holyrood as he crushed the field at Kiawah Island in the US PGA, building on his 2011 US Open victory. Topping the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic confirmed McIlroy as the pre-eminent golfer of his generation, fighting off Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and a quietly resurgent Tiger Woods.

However, despite the renewal of hope and explosion of public support in Britain for sport after the Jubilympics, an unwelcome black cloud hangs over the horizon for McIlroy. With the International Olympic Committee announcing that Golf will be part of the Rio Games in 2016, the combustible ingredients of Sport and Politics has been mixed once more. As a Northern Irish golfer, McIlroy is eligible to play for Team GB (shortened from Great Britain AND Northern Ireland) and play in the colours of the Union Flag. However, as a young man, he played for an Ireland team throughout the age groups. Much like Rugby and Cricket, Golf in Ireland at age group level is represented by one team which consists of players from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (Eire) under one banner.

The political and geographical difficulties of these inconsistent arrangements are manifold. The contentious history of the Six counties of Ulster has dominated Irish and British minds for hundreds of years, though tensions have cooled over the last two decades following the Troubles of the 20th Century. The Republican side claim Ulster should be part of a united Irish nation, whilst the Unionist supporters wish for the region to remain as part of the United Kingdom. Whatever the political leanings any individual has, it cannot be denied that Northern Irish sportsmen and women find themselves in a uniquely difficult position, caught between a rock and a hard place. In other sports, some has straddled the divide with varying degrees of hostility.

Tommy BoweIn Rugby Union, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris represent the province of Ulster and a united Ireland national team, whilst also representing the British and Irish Lions. With a variety of platforms to perform on, these players can show their pride over their Irish, British and Northern Irish connections, an opportunity not afforded to many who adopt a confrontational “us or them” approach. In Football, players such as Darron Gibson and James McClean have courted controversy by switching their allegiance to the Republic from the North, exploiting a FIFA directive which allowed from dual nationality for the two nations. Many born in the North feel a stranger in their own land, and vice versa, which only serves to fuel the animosity which has coloured the political discourse in Ulster.

An impossible situation, recently exacerbated by the recent riots in East Belfast over the flying of the Union flag, will inevitably result in McIlroy alienating previously ardent fans whichever team he chooses to represent. Thrust into the limelight as an unwilling role model and spokesperson for a politically confused generation of young Northern Irishmen and women, Rory McIlroy has identified himself as British with Irish Catholic roots who would ideally represent Northern Ireland in its own right, rather than as a subsidiary of Britain or the Irish Republic. The pinnacle of sport, forsaking the opportunity to claim an Olympic Gold medal may be the sacrifice McIlroy has to make to ensure the bitter recriminations of Northern Irish history are not revisited.

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