"I don't see how we can lay claim to people from Northern Ireland" - Des Smyth

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell representing Ireland at the Mission Hills World Cup.Des Smyth believes Irish golf should celebrate Rory McIlroy’s incredible achievements and consign political bickering and sectarian strife to the dark ages.

World No 1 McIlroy told a UK tabloid this week that he feels “more British than Irish” fueling speculation that he will play for “Great Britain” and not Ireland when golf makes its long-awaited return to the Olympic Games in 2016.

His words have stoked a fierce debate in the press and on social media sites - nothing new when the subject of McIlroy and the Olympic Games or Irish/British identity has been broached over the past four years.

But 59-year old Smyth, a two-time Ryder Cup player with eight European Tour wins, does not believe that Ireland should be trying to claim the world No 1, who declared nearly six years ago that he felt more allegiance to the UK than Ireland.

“I would identify myself as British,” a 17-year old McIlroy said in a December 2006 interview with Golf Digest Ireland. “I’m from Northern Ireland so I’m a British citizen and I’ve got a British passport.

“I’m Northern Irish but I can have an Irish passport if I want. It’s just easier to say it. I didn’t really have any experience of all the troubles. Holywood is a quiet area and nothing really goes on.”

After travelling the world with golfers from both sides of the border since the violent days of the 1970s and beyond, Smyth believes it’s time we grew up politically and focussed on the golf not the flag-waving.

“I don’t see how we can lay claim to people from Northern Ireland,” said Smyth, a highly repected Irish player and one of Ian Woosnam’s Ryder Cup vice captains at the K Club in 2006. “They are part of the United Kingdom.

“Jimmy Heggarty was my travelling buddy on tour for many years. He was from Ulster, part of the United Kingdom and I never had a problem with that.

“I am from Drogheda, which is part of the Republic of Ireland. At the end of the day we are all Europeans, so who gives a damn.

“People are only looking for trouble by making a big deal out of this. He will be playing for Europe in the Ryder Cup in a couple of weeks and the fact is that he will be a Ryder Cup player from Ireland and that’s that.

“Why go back into those areas we have been trying to get away from for so many years? He is the best player we have produced on this island and that should cover it.

“I never thought I’d see the day when a player from Ireland would achieve so much. He’s a real talent. He’s No 1 in every list you look at. I don’t think there is a list he is not No 1 on. You have to be unbelievably talented to do all that.

Des Smyth and a gallery of Irish Ryder Cup golfers to feature on Irish stamps, including Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke and Ronan Rafferty.

“He was doing things at 12, 13, 14 or 15 that nobody else was doing. When he was shooting 61 at Portrush at 15 and winning the Irish championship at 15. You were saying to yourself, ‘Hold on a minute, this isn’t normal.’ You knew this was something special, even at that early age.” 

Though it appears clear-cut, McIlroy has yet to officially make a decision on who he will declare for in 2016 [something he confirmed later in the day in an Open Letter pubished by his management group] and while his detractors say he is turning his back on the Golfing Union of Ireland, the official administrative body for golf on the island does not agree.

In a statement, the GUI said: “The GUI works with both the Irish Sports Council and Sport Northern Ireland in developing its world-class High Performance programme.

“Those who play for teams which represent the Golfing Union of Ireland do so irrespective of national citizenship.

“The GUI continues to have a great relationship with all the touring professionals who have gone through its programmes and played for its representative teams, all of whom perennially pledge their support to the Union in its efforts to administer the game on the island of Ireland.”

McIlroy is just one of a long list of golfers from Northern Ireland to have embraced the chance to wear the green blazer as amateurs.

As he told the Daily Mail: ‘What makes it such an awful position to be in is I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British than Irish.”

His comments were branded “stupid” by RTE presenter Pat Kenny and while McIlroy could have taken a lead former British Amateur champion Garth McGimpsey, who successfully appealed to golfers from both sides of the border, he is in a no-win situation in the professional game.

Remarking on Irish golf’s golden age in the majors following Darren Clarke’s Open victory last year, McGimpsey told the Sunday Independent: “I consider myself to have dual nationality, British on one hand and Irish on the other. There’s no way around that. But there was nobody more proud of playing for Ireland than I was.

“Through 226 senior international matches, I was proud to be part of winning Irish teams and never had a problem in standing for the Irish national anthem.”

McIlroy, however, is from a new, post-Troubles generation. And McGimpsey didn’t have to choose sides during his golfing career.

Time will tell what occurs but barring an unlikely change in the qualifying criteria, the GUI and Irish golf may be denied some reflected glory should McIlroy win a medal in 2016.

However, as Smyth and McGimpsey point out, seven major wins from golfers from this island in just five years is cause for celebration.

And while UK sport might get a chance to steal the limelight in Brazil, McIlroy will still be regarded as a true product of Irish golf no matter which flag is flying.