Rory McIlroy has a dilemma, and it has nothing to do with his game. Golfwise, the 23-year-old is in pretty great shape: he’s the world #1 and just took his fourth tournament of the year, the BMW Championship.
Instead, this particular issue stems from McIlroy’s nationality. McIlroy’s from Holywood, a town of 12,000 in County Down, Northern Ireland. Up until the late 1990s, Northern Ireland was locked in a conflict between IRA Catholic separatists and the British government (supported by Protestant/loyalist paramilitaries). Though most of the violence ended in 1998 with the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a divided and suspicious place. I spent two months in Belfast in the summer of 2009, and it was a city where the streets were empty by nighttime and the population remained mostly segregated. Bars wouldn’t let you wear soccer jerseys inside, since allegiance to nearly every regional club, especially Glasgow, Scotland’s Celtic and Rangers, was wrapped up as much in issues of politics and identity as it was in what happened on the field.
McIlroy’s Catholic, and like almost every resident of Northern Ireland, Protestant or Catholic, his family’s been affected by the violence of the Troubles. His uncle, Joe McIlroy, was killed by the Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitary group after buying a home in a Protestant neighborhood. Even still, since coming to prominence as a golfer, McIlroy has carefully and skillfully avoided declaring any sort of regional or political affiliation, stressing both his British and Irish heritages. For this, he’s been praised as the model of a new Northern Ireland, but the question hasn’t stopped dogging him: is he Irish, or is he British? And after winning yesterday, a comment of his to British paper the Daily Mail aggravated the issue: “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.” The Mail ran the interview under the headline “EXCLUSIVE: Team GB in Rio? Rory McIlroy says he owes a lot to Irish golf but feels more British,” but the one appearing in Google searches and at the top of the browser is more extreme and presumptous: “Rory McIlroy will represent Great Britain not Ireland at 2016 Olympics.”
The controversy led McIlroy to publish an open letter today, which he posted as an image on his Twitter. First, he identifies himself as simultaneously a representative of Irish golf and a “proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.” Second, he cites the support of Irish, British, and American fans alike. Third, he stresses that he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll play for Ireland or Great Britain in the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, which will be the first Olympics to feature golf.
You can read the entire letter below. Don’t doubt that this will become a more and more relevant issue as we get closer to the 2012 Games and McIlroy continues to cement his position as the best golfer in the world.