Rory McIlroy’s decision a real boost for Ireland’s Olympic medal hopes

Player made his own decision after thinking long and hard about the matter

Rory McIlroy and caddie JP Fitzgerald  at the pro-am at Fota Island. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Rory McIlroy and caddie JP Fitzgerald at the pro-am at Fota Island. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho


On the day that was in it, Rory McIlroy’s wearing of a green shirt – Nike, of course, with a trademark swoosh over his heart rather than a shamrock – was rather appropriate, even if his choice of colour was by accident rather than design.

“I had some laundry done, this is the only thing I had clean,” he said, a smile etched across his facial features.

For someone whose laundry has been washed in public perhaps too frequently for his own liking, McIlroy – on this occasion – acted as the messenger of his own, good tidings.

And, in declaring his intention to play for Ireland, rather than Team GB, in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the Northern Irishman, rather timely as a precursor to the Irish Open, stopped sitting on the fence and put an end to all of the conjecture.

Ever since golf was readmitted to the Olympic family, making a reappearance in Rio for the first time in 112 years after a well-orchestrated campaign which featured Pádraig Harrington and Annika Sorenstam among its chief advocates, the question of who McIlroy – eligible, under the Belfast Agreement, to play for Ireland or Great Britain – would play for had remained unanswered. Until now.

Sporting grounds

Why it took so long to come to the decision, only McIlroy will know. But, for sure, it wasn’t one to be taken lightly in any way. Now that it has been made, on sporting grounds, it should be respected and embraced.

For instance, Graeme McDowell – also from Northern Ireland – made an early decision on the matter. By choosing to represent Ireland in the 2013 World Cup of Golf in Melbourne, McDowell committed to also playing for Ireland in the Olympics. By staying away from that event in Australia, McIlroy gave himself more time to consider the issue which Darren Clarke described yesterday as “unwinnable”.

Certainly, McIlroy’s decision adds considerably to the potential medal prospects of the Irish team; and also ensures that one of global golf’s poster boys will actually play on that new golfing stage.

In truth, that option of not playing had only briefly crossed McIlroy’s mind and was never seriously considered. As the player put it: “It would have been a very selfish decision (not to play). It wouldn’t have been good for the game of golf at all.

“If we as a golfing community want golf to succeed in the Olympics, you need to have your best players playing. I realised that pretty quickly . . . . ultimately, we want to grow the game and expose the game to more people around the world.”

The Olympics will feature a 72-hole individual strokeplay competition for both men and women, restricted to 60 players for each competition.

The top-15 world ranked players will be eligible, with a limit of four players from a given country. Beyond the top-15, players will be eligible based on the world rankings with a maximum of two eligible players from each country that does not already have two or more players among the top-15.

McIlroy linked golf to other sports like rugby and cricket in outlining why he had chosen to play for Ireland in two years time. The comparisons are worthwhile, for golf is also an all-island sport which transcends political and religious divides. And, going back to his amateur days, McIlroy represented Ireland with considerable distinction at boys, youths and senior level. He won the European Individual title in 2006, a European Team Championship in 2007 and twice represented Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy (world amateur team championship).

Pat Finn, the General Secretary of the Golfing Union of Ireland, said he was “thrilled” that McIlroy had actually made the decision to compete.

Question mark

“There was a question mark up to now as to whether he was going to appear in the Olympics, be it on Team Ireland or Team GB. As one of the leading golfers in the world, it is really important that he competes in the Olympic Games and, if he wasn’t to do it because of the difficulty of this question, that would be quite sad,” said Finn.

The dilemma faced by Northern athletes is a unique one, in that they have a foot in both camps so to speak, and – in law – have the right to make a choice. But even Jamie Spence, the former European Tour player who has been tasked with leading the British team, was understanding of McIlroy’s commitment to play for Ireland.

At Fota Island in his role as a director of the European Tour, Spence said: “Being selfish, it would have been great if he was on our side, but I think he has made the right decision . . . . it’s just great that Rory is going to play in the Olympics, that’s the most important thing for the game of golf.”

Universal support

Not that McIlroy’s decision met with universal support, with Belfast boxer Paddy Barnes – an Olympic medalist – tweeting, “the reason I don’t like McIlroy representing Ireland at the Olympics is because he doubted going for Ireland, you should be proud to!”

“I think it is great for golf in Ireland, good for clarity. It’s a good time to declare, with good things happening in Northern Ireland. So why not? It’s not an isolated decision on the back of the Open championship going to Portrush,” said Harrington, one of those who helped pushed golf’s Olympic bid.

McIlroy had to take a lot of things into consideration. Advice, often unsolicited, only muddied the waters. When the decision came, it was his alone.

“I was always just worried about what other people would think, when actually it’s your decision at the end of the day. You have to take ownership and be comfortable with it. That was the decision I was most comfortable with, the decision I wanted to make.”

The commitment is made now.

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