"There is only one Irish team incorporating North and South as in previous World Cups" Keith Waters

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell representing Ireland at the 2011 World Cup in China. Picture Phil Inglis www.golffile.ieRory McIlroy’s hopes of teeing it up for Northern Ireland in the World Cup - and remaining free of somehow being railroaded into playing for Ireland in the Olympics - were based purely on an ambiguously worded press release issued by the PGA Tour.

“That might change things a little bit,” McIlroy was quoted as saying before leaving the TPC Sawgrass when he was mistakenly informed that Northern Ireland “for the first time, can field its own team.”

As has been the case since since the World Cup’s inception in 1953, golfers from the island of Ireland will represent Ireland.

The confusion appears to have stemmed from a press release issued by the European Tour (via the PGA Tour) on Sunday, officially announcing what Graeme McDowell had inadvertently revealed in his press conference ahead of The Players Championship - that this year’s World Cup will be held at Royal Melbourne in Australian from November 21-24.

Under new qualifying criteria designed to bring the World Cup in line with the Olympic Games qualifying system for 2016, the press release explained that unlike previous years, when there were just two representatives per country, each country can now have up to four players providing they are in the top 15 in the world:

“The qualification system for the event is similar to that which will be used in the Olympic Games, when golf returns to the program in 2016.  The field will include 60 players (no cut), with eligibility taken from the Official World Golf Ranking.  Up to four players can qualify, per country, if they are in the top 15 of the OWGR.  Beyond No. 15, up to a maximum of two players per country can qualify. If two or more players from a country qualify, then the country is eligible for team competition, with the top-two players comprising the qualified team.”

So far so good. The press release then went on to state:

The major difference between the World Cup qualification model and that of the Olympic golf competition is that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will each be considered a separate country (for the purpose of the Olympics, those four countries compete as Great Britain). Further, the Olympic Games golf competition will not feature a team component.”

Herein lies the confusion, which stems from the European Tour’s decision to label Irish golfers as being from either Ireland or Northern Ireland, thus helping players from the province region from becoming targets for sectarian abuse the height of what were euphemistically called “The Troubles” for playing under the Irish flag.

McIlroy, who had rotundly answered “No” when asked at Quail Hollow on the eve of the Wells Fargo Championship if would be playing in this year’s World Cup, cleared up any lingering doubt over his motives at Sawgrass on Sunday. Not that it wasn’t already clear.

International Golf Federation President Peter Dawson - the Federation head for golf when it comes to the Olympics - tentatively suggested recently that McIlroy and McDowell may be tied to playing Ireland having represented only Ireland at amateur or world championship level (ie the World Cup of Golf).

McIlroy baldly rejected this option - which has been interpreted as Dawson’s even-handed way of taking the difficult “Ireland or Team GB” question out of the hands of the likes of McIlroy and McDowell - insisting he had the right to choose and that he could take up the option in the Olympic Charter to “change country” if he hadn’t played for his previous country for three years. 

“I think it’s Rule 41 but I still have a choice. They can’t take it away from me. If you change country or don’t play for that country for three years you still have a choice.  I’ve not played for anyone [Ireland] since the World Cup in 2011, the Olympics would be five years so I still have a choice.”

This year’s World Cup would come less than three years before the 2016 Olympics in Rio, hence McIlroy’s aversion to tying himself to Ireland should he want to declare for “Team GB.”

But while some interpreted the press release as suggesting that Northern Ireland is “a country” and can have its own team at this year’s World Cup - thus giving McIlroy hope that it “might change things a little bit” when it came to his decision to say “No” so dismissively when first asked.

The European Tour fielded a request for clarification yesterday and passed it on to its Chief Operating Officer, Keith Waters, who is also its Director of International Policy. In an email, he replied:

“There is only one Irish team incorporating North and South as in previous World Cups. The reference to Northern Ireland is ambiguous as I am sure the PGA Tour intended to state North Ireland like Wales, Scotland, etc is part of GB [sic].

An agency ran the line:

Padraig Harrington smiled when told that Northern Ireland could have its own team. “It suits me,” he said.

No wonder he smiled.

Or Keith Waters is out of the loop or McDowell’s call at The Players for his old “partner in crime” to join in him in Melbourne is likely to go unheeded.