Rory McIlroy deserves pass to miss Irish Open after saving its life

Decision to focus on winning Open Championship at Portrush makes sense

Rory McIlroy will not play in this year’s Irish Open at Lahinch. Photograph: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy will not play in this year’s Irish Open at Lahinch. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Why any need for hysteria? You’d swear Rory McIlroy had done something illegal or broken some moral code by finally confirming that, no, he won’t be playing in the DDF Irish Open at Lahinch this summer. The poster boy has taken himself out of the picture but it’s not as if he has left a blank canvas in its place.

Ironically, it is thanks to McIlroy – and his ground-breaking player hosting of the Irish Open in recent years, during which he brought Dubai Duty Free on board as title sponsors and saw it resurrected into a blue-chip event on the PGA European Tour – that this is as good a time as any to demonstrate just how hale and hearty the tournament is, how it can survive and thrive beyond his nourishment (on a once-off basis).

In this year of years, he is allowed some dispensation. In this year when The 148th Open returns to Royal Portrush on the Causeway Coast, surely he can be given a pass on missing out on the Irish Open so that he can focus his title aspirations on once again lifting the Claret Jug on home soil? That McIlroy, aiming to achieve the career Grand Slam at Augusta National next month, puts winning an Open ahead of a green jacket really says it all about where his priorities lie.

And, if we’re completely honest, this news hasn’t come like a bolt from the blue. It was at the season-ending Tour Championship in Dubai last November that he first floated the possibility of missing out on the Irish Open at Lahinch.

What was it he said back then? “I am going to try and play the week before Majors, as three of my four Major wins have been by playing the week before.” The insinuation was that he wouldn’t be playing three weeks in a row, and that the Scottish Open was on his radar. His intentions were pretty clear back then; now, they’re crystal clear.

McIlroy’s missing out on the Irish Open should not be seen as any snub to Paul McGinley, who is taking over the mantle as tournament host. It shouldn’t, either, be construed as any slight to the wonderful Co Clare links. It should be seen as someone – who is, after all, a sole trader and entitled to make his own decisions – prioritising what is most important to him. And, if, by playing the Scottish Open the week before gives him what he believes is his best chance of winning the British Open, then let him get on with it.

Rory McIlroy salutes the crowd as he makes his way to the 18th green to complete his victory at the 2016 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Rory McIlroy salutes the crowd as he makes his way to the 18th green to complete his victory at the 2016 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

The positioning of the Irish Open as the first of a perceived “Links Swing” also taking in the Scottish and the British placed it as vulnerable for those players who don’t want to play three weeks in a row (with a Major as the third event) or those who prefer to play the week before a Major, which is the category which McIlroy – this time – is putting himself in. Time will tell if he is right, and the odds are against him no matter which route he took, but his scheduling must be respected as, ultimately, he is the one swinging the club.

As for McIlroy and the Irish Open? In his case, actions have spoken louder than any words.

The tournament was on its knees, supported through additional funding from the European Tour, when he stepped in from the shadows to embrace it as his own.

In his first year as tournament host at Royal County Down in 2015, there’s no doubt that his hands-on approach in organising the event – and especially numerous fundraising efforts on the side – mitigated against his on-course performance. He learned from that, and discovered the art of delegating in going on to win the title at The K Club in 2016.

But through his four-year tenure as tournament host – RCD (2015), The K Club (2016), Portstewart (2017) and Ballyliffin (2018) – the one factor which remained consistent was his commitment to raising money (many millions of euro) for charitable causes. Nobody can deny that.

Yes, McIlroy’s absence from Lahinch will be missed.

Yes, it is disappointing for McGinley.

Yes, it is a blow.

But it is not fatal. Nobody has died. The blank canvas will be filled with many other poster boys, many elite players who prefer to play two weeks before a Major and skip the middle week; and, indeed, others who actually like playing back-to-back-to-back for three weeks in a row.

On this one, let’s give McIlroy a pass and understand his reasoning for the bigger picture that it is.

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