Why golf is lucky to have McIlroy (again)

“I’m not a very patriotic guy. I am doing it because I think it is the right thing to do, and I missed it last time. For golf to be an Olympic sport you need your best players there, and I want to represent the game of golf more than anything else,” McIlroy explained at the end of last week’s Open in Kent.

“I don’t know if there’s much to look forward to. It’s obviously going to be a very different environment. Looking forward to getting another week’s golf in and trying to get my game in shape. As I said, there’s not much else to do there.”

The Open had been another ordinary performance, with too many mistakes creeping in and with the new swing changes still bedding in, but he couldn’t have sounded less enthusiastic if he had tried.

In Rio 2016 McIlroy was among a whole host of big names who dodged the Olympics using the Zika virus as their reasoning. Others explained quite bluntly that the Games simply didn’t float their boat. This time around, the world is in an altogether different place courtesy of another virus and a lot of the same names haven’t taken up their spots in Tokyo. For Team GB, for example, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Fitzpatrick and Lee Westwood all turned down spots, leaving Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood to make the trip.

There are huge restrictions about where the athletes can stay and move around and there won’t be any fans at any events. If ever there was a Games to give it a miss this would be it.

For McIlroy there is the other head wreck of flags and patriotism. McIlroy was born in Northern Ireland and is an Irish Catholic, he spent most of his childhood representing Ireland at golf. In a fascinating three-part interview with Paul Kimmage in the Irish Independent in February 2020 he explained how golf’s return to the Olympics made him feel.

“When it was announced it put me in a position where I had to question who I am. Who am I? Where am I from? Where do my loyalties lie? Who am I going to play for? Who do I not want to piss off the most? I started to resent it. And I do. I resent the Olympic Games because of the position it put me in — that’s my feeling towards it — and whether that’s right or wrong it’s how I feel.

“It changed whenever I started to think about myself and not the opinions of others. I don’t want to go through life making decisions based on what people say, or think, because they’re going to think what they think anyway. Half are going to like you, and half aren’t going to like you, and I’m not going to allow that to inhibit me from having an experience I’ve never had before.”

He revealed that Justin Rose sent him a text after winning his gold medal and asked if he had felt that he had missed out – McIlroy replied that, whoever he had represented he would have felt uncomfortable and that he felt no connection to either flag.

So what made McIlroy take the original plunge, pre days of Covid?   

“I’ll be playing under an Irish flag and if I get to the podium, or win, people will be happy and that’s great. But going to the Olympics is not about that for me. That’s not why I’m playing. I’m going because I want to have a great experience. And that might sound selfish but that’s how I feel. I’m not going to be jumping around in a tricolour, I’m going to stay as neutral as possible because that’s the house, and place, I grew up in, and it’s always who I’ve been. I feel more a citizen of the world than anywhere else. I’ve made my home in America; I grew up in Northern Ireland; I play for Ireland . . . it’s a complicated dynamic.

“I’ve cared too much about what people say. So, as long as golf is in the Olympic Games, I’m going to do everything I can to play. Why should all these other guys get that experience and not me?”

McIlroy isn’t going to have the experience that other Olympians have had in previous years, rubbing shoulders with the great and good of other sports, spectating at other events and generally being around a village of sportsmen and women who have given everything to just be there. This isn’t golf’s big week but it is for the majority of athletes there and it’s humbling and inspiring and the golfers who did make it to Rio loved it.

McIlroy’s in Japan this week because, in his open-minded eyes, it is the right thing to do. When you look back at the end of your career where you came in the FedEx Cup and the like means next to nothing and, who knows, maybe this might be the spark that all of us are hoping will reignite things again.