Rory McIlroy can seal greatest success in history of Irish sport
Even the most ambivalent can’t deny that a career grand slam would be unparalleled
Rory McIlroy will make a fifth attempt to complete the career grand slam at this year’s US Masters. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
Should Rory McIlroy win this week’s US Masters and become just the sixth player to win all four of golf’s majors it deserves to be regarded as the finest achievement in the history of Irish sport.
I concede this as one of many discerning sceptics who know little about golf and care perhaps even less.
But fair’s fair. Adding the Masters to the 2011 US Open, the 2014 British Open and two PGA victories in 2012 and 2014 would be an unparalleled sporting accomplishment from an Irish sportsperson.
Golf, even if it all too often can appear an offence against taste, is still a global mainstream inclination and McIlroy is a phenomenon of it: joining Nicklaus, Hogan, Woods, Player and Sarazen will make him a living legend. And all before the age of 30 as well.
You’d think the prospect of an Irishman reaching such dizzying status would be universally relished here.
This is an outrageously talented individual who on his best A-plus day appears to have a game with which even his finest contemporaries seem unfamiliar.
That off the course he has navigated the minefield of global fame with no little grace only emphasises how rare a figure he can cut on it.
He is not a product of outrageous privilege, nor is he some weird hot-housed protégé. Wider sporting tastes run from Manchester United to rugby and are recognisable to most of us. When he speaks it’s still in an Irish accent, and, thankfully, without too much of the jargon used by other golfers.
It’s that ordinariness which helps make his ability to strike a white ball around a field seem even more extraordinary. It’s certainly something one would have thought should have McIlroy clasped to Ireland’s sporting bosom.
And if he does pull clear down the Augusta stretch on Sunday many people here will be sincerely thrilled for him. But while generalities are a blunt instrument, there’s little point parsing distinctions to the extent of ignoring how McIlroy provokes notable ambivalence among others.
In recent years the Irish Open has effectively been saved by McIlory in terms of profile, prestige and prize money
There are different reasons for that. Some no doubt simply don’t like the cut of his jib. It’s not like there has to be mandatory adulation of sporting genius. Certain faces get on certain nerves. Pádraig Harrington only has to open his mouth and my teeth start to itch.
There’s probably dollops of good old-fashioned begrudgery thrown in too. McIlroy’s wealth is estimated in the hundreds of millions. And he’s a Man United fan, so what’s not to dislike?
But it’s hard not to suspect that much of this peculiar ambivalence is bound up in identity and the British-Irish thing that still trails McIlroy like a bad smell.
It seems like whatever he does will never erase the impression made by that famous statement about feeling more British than Irish.
Stories about search engines here fizzing with the words ‘McIlroy’ and ‘religion’ on the back of that don’t sound madly apocryphal. The idea of someone brought up a catholic in Co Down and not automatically identifying with the Republic of Ireland was clearly a headwreck for a lot of people.
That someone born in the north in 1989, who mostly grew up after the worst of the troubles were over, and whose cultural reference points are hardly identical to someone from Kerry, might mostly feel Northern Irish seemed to be a startling revelation rather than a statement of mundane reality.
Suddenly the cherished all-Irish element to so many sports here seemed secondary. So did those years McIlroy spent travelling the island playing junior tournaments, or proudly representing it at amateur level, fulfilling childhood dreams of playing for Ireland.
That statement continues to be a prism through which McIlroy is viewed. It certainly seemed to colour recent reaction to his decision not to play the Irish Open this year, with hysterical claims of betrayal and perfidy getting flung around like golf balls not belonging to Donald Trump.
This despite the fact that in recent years the Irish Open has effectively been saved by McIlory in terms of profile, prestige and prizemoney.
Reducing your appreciation of a superb talent on the basis of some blinkered notion of what properly constitutes Irishness is depressing
At a time when we’re happily comparing ourselves to the blinkered xenophobic lunacy of Brexit, the McIlroy quandary is a timely reminder of how narrow definitions of identity aren’t the preserve of those who’ve learned their history off the back of Airfix model-boxes.
Identity is a complicated subject at the best of times, often coming down to the similarly subjective and instinctive judgements we make about whether we like someone or not. So it’s tapping into pretty primal stuff.
But it surely shouldn’t be complicated enough that it prevents people from revelling in the talent and achievements of an Irishman on the verge of sporting immortality.
Begrudgingly dislike McIlroy all you want because he’s young, successful, rich beyond dreams, and possessed of the sort of natural sporting talent perhaps only comparable to Roger Federer and Lionel Messi on the global stage.
Maybe Shane Lowry’s game, and possibly more down to earth manner, just appeal more. Favouring the plucky trier rather than the prodigiously gifted can be a sound strategy for sporting allegiance. It could simply be the swagger of McIlroy’s gait that’s your equivalent of Harrington-speak.
But reducing your appreciation of a superb talent on the basis of some blinkered notion of what properly constitutes Irishness is depressing.
Whatever about the gilded quintet who’ve pulled off the career slam, just look at some of the names who’ve came up one short – Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead.
Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros never won the PGA or the US Open at all. Even the most arch golf sceptic can recognise how evocative these names are.
Plenty who know and love the game suspect that by the early hours of Monday morning Rory McIlroy will have moved to the greatest company of all. And surely only the most determinedly ambivalent can’t bring themselves to relish such a prospect.