McIlroy takes ownership of his destiny: "I was always very proud to put on the Irish uniform and play as an amateur and I would be very proud to do it again"

McIlroy takes ownership of his destiny: "I was always very proud to put on the Irish uniform and play as an amateur and I would be very proud to do it again"
Rory McIlroy. Picture: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy. Picture: Getty Images

In the end, he followed his heart. 

Even for those who believe he followed the path of least resistance by declaring he will play for Ireland if he qualifies to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games, Rory McIlroy is slowly putting the pieces of the puzzle into place.

Whatever about the political machinations and even the religious overtones of the complex Irishness question that hangs over many sportsman who hail from Northern Ireland, the two-time major champion made the logical decision from the golfing standpoint.

Having played 41 times for Ireland as an amateur from boys to senior level from 2003 to 2007, won the European Amateur Team Championships and the European Individual title and risen to world amateur No 1 as amateur golfer under the auspices of the Golfing Union of Ireland, it would have been incongruous in many respects had he taken the Team GB route.

There is a temptation to believe that this was a calculated decision. Was it co-incidence that he was dressed in a  green Nike polo shirt? 

“No, actually it was one of the only things I had clean to be honest," he said. "I had some laundry done, so this is the only thing I had.”

If an Irishman goes on to win the Irish Open at Fota Island on Sunday, this could turn out to be the Holy Trinity week for Irish golf. 

On Monday, the R&A officially announced that it had invited Royal Portrush to return to the Open rota as soon as 2019. Today, the greatest Irish player of his generation declared he’d be proud to wear the green in Rio as proudly as he’d worn it for the first time as a 14 year old boy.

It appears written in the stars that another Irishman — McIlroy is the red-hot favourite and even shot a estimated nine under 63 in the pro-am — will win here on Sunday.

The stars are aligning and as Pádraig Harrington pointed out, it almost seems like a natural progression following the Royal Portrush announcement that McIlroy should declare his Olympic allegiance to Ireland ahead of Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its official title, this week of all weeks.

“I think he’s made it great timing with The Open, he picked a great time to declare,” said Harrington, who suggested two years ago that McIlroy would make it easier for more Irishmen to qualify for Rio if he declared for Team GB. 

“If he declared a year ago, it might have seemed controversial. It doesn’t seem controversial here today. Good things are happening to Northern Ireland, so why not? It’s great for golf in Ireland.

“Maybe with Open coming to Portrush it was easier for him to say, ‘I can play for Ireland and keep everyone happy.’”

When Peter Dawson, in his role as President of the International Golf Federation, declared that McIlroy’s previous appearances for Ireland as an amateur and at World Cup of Golf level for Ireland as a professional would almost certainly tie him to Ireland for Rio, McIlroy brushed aside the opportunity to take the easier way out by accepting that the matter had been taken out of his hands.

He wanted to make the decision on his own terms. 

Graeme McDowell jumped at that chance by playing for Ireland in Australia alongside Shane Lowry last year but McIlroy still had the right to make the decision himself and eventually did.

While the IGF is believed to be ready to announce the rules regarding qualification during the Open at Hoylake next month, McIlroy has beaten them too the punch by taking his career into his own hands.

Coming as it has, just a few weeks after taking the momentous decision to break up with Caroline Wozniacki, he has essentially cleared the decks now (court case against Horizon notwithstanding) to dedicate himself purely to his game.

Explaining his decision, McIlroy said: “Thinking about all the times that I played as an amateur for Ireland and as a boy and everything; I think for me it's the right decision to play for Ireland, so I'm going to play for Ireland in 2016.

“I was always very proud to put on the Irish uniform and play as an amateur and as a boy, and I would be very proud to do it again.

“It was a decision that I felt I needed to make myself, because it's something that you have to live with.

“It's your own right to have that decision and basically it’s all mine. It's taken me long enough to sort of get over the hurdle, but it's definitely the right decision.”

Ireland can have up to four golfers at the Olympics in Rio but only if all four are in the top 15 in the world.

If only McIlroy is in the Top-15, then we can only have two and players like world No 22 Graeme McDowell, No 75 Shane Lowry or No 233 Padraig Harrington will have to battle it out for the other spot through the world rankings.

And that’s an incentive for Lowry, who grinned from ear to ear and said: “I’m delighted for him… but he’s not on the team yet!

“He’s one of the best players in the world but the team is not picked for another two years. You never know where we will all be in two years’ time.”

McIlroy insisted that nobody twisted his arm to opt for Ireland, explaining: “It’s nothing really to do with anyone else apart from myself.

“I was just thinking back to all the times I've played in an Irish t-shirt or put on the Irish uniform, and how happy and how proud that I've been to do that."

Still, it’s been an agonising decision for the two-time major winner, who has been torn between upsetting people in Ireland and Northern Ireland since golf was first mentioned as an Olympic sport back in 2009.

Less than two years ago he told a British newspaper: “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… Whatever I do, I know my decision is going to upset some people but I just hope the vast majority will understand.”

With the International Golf Federation set to announce its qualifying rules for the Olympics on July 14, McIlroy can’t be accused of being pushed into the green corner.

Dressed in emerald green shirt he insisted his decision had nothing to do with marketing or playing the green card for his US fan base.

He said: “Just because now that I'm playing golf for money and I'm a professional, I'm supposed to have this choice or this decision to make.

“But if you look at the rugby players, look at cricketers or hockey players, they view Ireland as one, the same as we do in golf.

“I don't think there's any point to change that or any point to go against that just because it's a different event or it's the Olympics.”

Relief was one of the feelings to wash over him today.

“I was more worried about what other people would think, rather than me,” he said of his battle to declare for one team or the other.

"But you've got to do what's right for yourself and what you feel most comfortable with, and ultimately that was the decision that I made.

“There's no point in delaying it and letting it linger any longer.  And as I said, watching the World Cup in Brazil, thinking about Brazil in a couple of years' time, it just sort of got me thinking, maybe I should just go ahead and get it out of the way, and really look forward now to the Olympics in a couple years' time.

“It's something that's been quite important to me and something that I needed to make some sort of decision or some sort of stand on it.

“It was just weighing up everything, and thinking back about the times that I played for Ireland and won The European Team championship with Ireland, won a lot of great amateur titles representing Ireland, I just thought, why change that.  Basically it's just a continuation of what I've always done.

“There's been a lot of people sort of giving their opinion and what they think I should do.  But at the end of the day, it's a decision that I had to make for myself.”

His decision was applauded by some on the press conference but McIlroy did not think it deserved a hand.

“I didn't think I deserved a round of applause for making a simple decision, but at the end of the day I've played for Ireland since I was a boy and have a lot of great memories,” he said.

"Obviously the World Cup is on in Brazil and it sort of gets you thinking and I've been thinking about it for a while and thought, why not, there’s no time like the present.

"I played by junior and boys golf for Ireland, I played my amateur golf for Ireland - just because I'm getting paid that doesn't mean I should change that.

"I have a lot of friends who play rugby for Ulster who would say they’re Northern Irish but are very proud to pull on the green jersey, as I will be in a couple of years time.”

McDowell reaction to the news was eloquent and to the point but he wasn’t setting off any fireworks.

“I think it's great that he's put it to bed at last,” he said. “I think it was a contentious, complicated, complex issue that I suppose could have been settled very quickly with a straight answer.

“But you know, I think it's a good boost for everyone here this week. To have Rory McIlroy representing Ireland in the Olympic Games is very special.

“I'm glad that he's committed and that's cool. I'm hoping to be there alongside him. There's no doubt he'll be there. I just have to keep my game ticking over and hopefully I'll be there, as well.”

The vast majority of people on the island of Ireland will be pleased with the decision and if there is upset in Northern Ireland, a decision to go with Team GB would certainly have sparked a fierce debate.

“There’s been absolutely no negative reaction and I don't expect there to be any negative reaction,” McDowell said of his own decision to go with Ireland should be qualify for Rio.

“Thankfully, our sport doesn't really kind of draw that contentious crowd like some of the other sports do, so we are very fortunate.

“I don't see there being any problem with this.  Anybody that wants to have a problem with it, they are kind of looking too hard at it really.”

Englishman Jamie Spence, Golf Team Leader for Team GB, never broached the subject with McIlroy in the run up to today’s announcement.

“Being selfish I'd have loved to have had Rory, but I think he has made the right decision,” Spence said.

Slowly but surely, McIlroy is taking command of his life both on and off the golf course. That can only be a good thing for him.

The great thing for golf is that we’ll get to a product of Irish amateur game going for gold after all.

For a while it looked as though political considerations might deny the world the chance to see an extraordinary talent do what he's done so beautifully since he was a small boy. 

Good for him.