Rory McIlroy is one of the world's premier athletes right now, on a historic run of success after winning his third tournament in four weeks. And with that kind of success, every element of your life, right down to your very national origins, comes under scrutiny.
McIlroy is from Northern Ireland, which has, shall we say, a tangled political history with both Ireland and the United Kingdom. Athletes from Northern Ireland are able to declare their allegiance, for the purposes of international competition, to either Ireland or the U.K. (Many choose Ireland because of the relatively less crowded route to the top.)
Hence, the issue: With golf returning to the Olympics in 2016, McIlroy could play for either nation, and either nation would love to have the closest thing to a medal lock you could get in golf. It's easy speculation for the sports pages, but it's deadly serious for those affected. McIlroy has twice played for Ireland at the World Cup England, but hinted in an interview that he may not follow suit for the Olympics.
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"The fact is, I've always felt more British than Irish," McIlroy told The Guardian in a story posted Monday morning. "Maybe it was the way I was brought up, I don't know, but I have always felt more of a connection with the U.K. than with Ireland. And so I have to weigh that up against the fact that I've always played for Ireland and so it is tough. Whatever I do, I know my decision is going to upset some people, but I just hope the vast majority will understand."
Maybe they will, and maybe they won't. Either way, the comments took the European golfing world by surprise. Which is why, on Monday afternoon, McIlroy took to Twitter to post an open letter attempting to clarify his take on the situation. "I am a proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland and am hugely honoured [sic, for Americans] to have come from very rich Irish sporting roots ... I am also a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland. That is my background and always will be."
All well and good. However, in attempting to "clarify" the situation, McIlroy only ensured that it will stick around to dog him for quite awhile: "I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics. On a personal level, playing in the Olympics would be a huge honour. However, the Games in Rio are still four years away and I certainly won't be making any decisions with regards to participating any time soon."
Fair enough; a decision made in haste, or to quell a controversy without thinking through the consequences, is the kind of thing that could come back to bite McIlroy. Still, the issue of national allegiance won't go away anytime soon.
Make it easy on everyone, Rory. Move to the United States. We'd be happy to claim you as our own.
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