Could Olympic escape clause oblige McIlroy and McDowell to play for Ireland?

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell walk behing the Irish tricolour at the World Cup in 2011. For a long time now Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have made noises about their Olympic Games conundrum and whether they will be forced to choose between Great Britain (and Northern Ireland) or Ireland if they qualify for Brazil in 2016.

Given the comments made by R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson on Tuesday, the saga may only just be getting started in earnest.

While reports suggest that McIlroy (and other UK-born) Irish golfers may have to declare for Ireland because of their previous appearances for Ireland as amateurs and in golf’s World Cup, the situation is murky to say the least.

Dawson, said: “I think, because Rory’s history of playing for Ireland at amateur level and I think at World Cup level, that there may be a regulation within the Olympic rules that would require him to stay with that. It’s quite ambiguous really but there is a rule that a player who has represented one nation at a previous world championships from certain countries, that carries with you.

“I would very much like to take this burden of choice away from the player if we can possibly do it because it’s not fair to him. I think he’s made it pretty clear in one or two pronouncements that he’s worried about it and the last thing we want is players worrying about this.”

Dawson’s comments are far from authoritive. “I think” and “It’s quite ambiguous really” are hardly the words of a man sure of his ground.

What is clear is that McIlroy and McDowell, the world No 2 and world No 8 respectively, are patently uncomfortable about being asked to choose between Team GB and Ireland.

McIlroy was forced to issue an open letter last year following a newspaper report that quoted him as saying that he always felt “more British than Irish” and hinted strongly at Christmas that the easiest choice may be to simply give the Olympics a wide berth.

“I am in an extremely sensitive and difficult position and I conveyed as much in a recent newspaper interview,” McIlroy’s Open Letter read. “I am a proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland. I am also a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom. That is my background and always will be. I receive great support from both Irish and British fans alike and it is greatly appreciated.”

A few months later he was back on the same subject in a BBC NI documentary on a stellar 2012 season that saw him win his second major and win Player of the Year awards on both the European Tour and US PGA Tour.

“Whatever decision I make, whether that’s play for Ireland, play for Britain, not play at all maybe just because I don’t want to upset too many people,” McIlroy said the documentary. 

Asked if not playing was a genuine possibility, McIlroy added: “For sure, it’s definitely an option. I’ve got three options; I either play for one side or the other or I don’t play.”

The Olympic dilemma has been simmering since the 2009 announcement that golf was making its return to the Games.

McIlroy has become more and more agitated by the Olympic question as his profile has grown.

Speaking at the Accenture Match Play in Tucson in 2012, McIlroy said: “I wish my decision wasn’t as big a deal as it is going to be but I know that as soon as I make it, it is going to be a huge deal.

“Whatever way I choose it is going to upset someone. I’ve played for Ireland my whole life at amateur level, playing under the GUI.

“But this is completely different. It’s professional golf. You look at my flag this week and I play under the Northern Ireland flag. World Cup you play as a United Ireland team, the same as the rugby team, the cricket team or the hockey team.

“But the thing about the Olympics is that you have to choose sides and it would be nice not to have to choose.

“Maybe by that time the Olympics comes around the decision will be made for me and I can only get on one team.

“Hopefully that is not the case and I will still be in the top 15 in the world. And if that’s the case, that means that I will have to choose. It’s a decision I wish I didn’t have to make.”

He the added, in reference to girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki: “The Olympics is a big deal now in tennis and being close to it, I know how big a deal it is for Caroline to play and how much she wants to have a medal.

“So maybe if I get a taste for it, I will really appreciate what it is. But up until then, I’d still view this event as a bigger event than the Olympics.

“It’s going to be hard to make this decision and if I knew that I wasn’t going to upset someone I wouldn’t mind.

“But because I am going to upset one side or the other, it is a difficult position to be in. I didn’t put myself in this position, it is just something that has been thrust upon me.”

In the hypothetical case that he were to opt for Ireland, McIlroy said: “That won’t upset English people, or Scottish people or Welsh people. It will upset some Northern Irish people so it is just a very tough one.

“One thing I do know and that’s that golf is going to be fantastic for the Olympics.”

McIlroy’s pal Graeme McDowell is in the same boat when it comes to Olympic allegiance and said several times that he wishes the decision was taken out of his hands.

“Padraig [Harrington] said Rory and I should claim Great Britain and free up more spots in the world rankings for Irish players,” McDowell said that week in Tucson. “But this is four years down the line. We don’t know what is going to be happening in four years’ time. I hope myself and Rory and many more Irish players are in the top 15 in the world and it will be a great problem to have.

“But right now it’s a tough decision and I’d prefer if someone made that decision for me.”

Ireland’s Paul McGinley has been careful not to say anything that might upset McIlroy, whose support was crucial in his successful bid to win the 2014 Ryder Cup captaincy.

“All I can say is that unless something is done I really don’t think Rory will play in the Olympics, which would be a huge shame not only for the sport but the Olympics themselves,” said McGinley. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t think sport and politics mix and we can all see that Rory has a real problem here. I agree with G-Mac (Graeme McDowell) who said that someone from the International Olympic Committee or a similar body should come forward and make the decision for him.

“As things stand, Rory is being asked to offend someone and that’s not right, he’s not that sort of guy. He shouldn’t be placed in that situation.”

Dawson’s words this week suggest that moves have been made to find a way of making sure that McIlroy is in Rio de Janeiro, one way or the other.

Considering the World Cup the equivalent of a World Championship is a tenuous argument and if McIlroy had the will to fight it, he could easily point to the precedents of other Northern Ireland Olympic athletes who have represented Ireland in World Championships.

Sitting out international competition for a couple of years - it’s been almost a year and a half since McIlroy and McDowell played under the tricolour in the World Cup of Golf in China - would do the trick.

Having the IOC IGF play the bad guys in this instance would appear to be the best solution to a “problem” that does nothing but take away from the beauty of the Olympic Games in the first place.

Dawson may well be right, and if he is, this Catch 22 story is set to run and run.

As McDowell said last September when the McIlroy “more British than Irish” furore was at its height: “What’s my allegiance? I really don’t have one. I sit on the fence because unfortunately that is where I have to sit.

“I come from a mixed religion background. I don’t want to upset my mum [Catholic], I didn’t want to upset my dad [Protestant], I don’t want to upset the people from Ireland I don’t want to upset the British people.

“We are in the unfortunate position in Northern Ireland where we have one foot on each team and I feel is a tough call.

“Rory is very much in the spotlight and has been coerced into making some kind of decision which let’s be honest, is four years down the road.”

McDowell has always adopted a wait and see stance in the hope that a blazer somewhere will make the choice for him

“It remains to be seen if we have to make that decision or if the Olympic committee makes that decision for us,” McDowell said. “It is a tough subject, a horrible subject and like I say, I sit on the fence.

“I will play for whatever team will take me, no doubt about it. You are always going to upset somebody when you have to declare allegiance for one side or the other and like I say, I’d prefer someone to make that decision for me. It is too difficult.”

Being “obliged” to play for Ireland is going to please no-one either.