Sport Golf

Sunday 25 June 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Relax - it was just a round of golf, folks

'The latest spasm of feigned outrage has been provoked by Rory McIlroy’s acceptance of an invitation to play golf with US President Donald Trump.'
'The latest spasm of feigned outrage has been provoked by Rory McIlroy’s acceptance of an invitation to play golf with US President Donald Trump.'

Eamonn Sweeney

If Rory McIlroy did not exist it would be necessary for cranks to invent him. No sportsman has provided so many opportunities for social media hand-wringers and loudmouths to engage in much ado about nothing.

The latest spasm of feigned outrage has been provoked by McIlroy's acceptance of an invitation to play golf with Donald Trump. Cue the usual moronic inferno on Twitter, added to by the appearance of one Lawrence Donegan on Irish radio to Britsplain to us why our man had done A Very Bad Thing Indeed. Donegan informed us that he 'literally can't believe,' McIlroy played golf with the President of the United States. Which is hardly true, because if he 'literally' didn't believe it, he'd hardly have come on to talk about it.

Donegan's argument seemed to be that McIlroy's decision would stop golf appealing to young people who might like it a bit more if it stopped being so like golf has always been.

By this reckoning, if McIlroy wanted to help grow the game he would have been better off to play a round with Jeremy Corbyn or perhaps to join Richard Boyd-Barrett in a foursomes against Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. What do we want? Funky socialist golf for the people, man.

In fairness, Donegan, who was in some '80s Scottish rock band - I think he might have been the blonde one in Strawberry Switchblade - was actually a very good golf writer. He just wasn't a very typical one. The acknowledged doyen of golf writing, Dan Jenkins, was a supporter of Trump's presidential campaign before it was popular or profitable while another of the greats, John Feinstein, once wrote that the average PGA Tour pro was so right-wing his ideal president would be Rush Limbaugh. Happy days for the average PGA Tour pro, then.

It's a reasonable bet that the star players and core audience of golf are perhaps the most conservative in sport. The game may have become less exclusive than it was a few decades ago but its bulwark remains the better-off sections of the population - the business community, the big clubs with the expensive membership and green fees which skew participation towards the kind of people who, at election time, favour Trump and politicians on the right wing of the political spectrum generally.

There are those who would view this as a shocking indictment of golf. I'm not one of them. The wealthy need to relax, same as anyone else. Similarly I don't think there's anything particularly awful about the fact that fee-paying schools who've prioritised rugby for many decades continue to provide the lion's share of international players.

Not every sports star needs to be a working-class hero who's clawed his way up from a poverty-stricken existence in the ghetto. To pretend otherwise is to indulge in the worst variety of faux populism, a variety peculiarly popular with the guilty scions of the middle class.

The majority of top professional sportsmen tend to be politically conservative. Most self-made millionaires are. And as someone who is neither particularly wealthy nor right-wing, that's OK with me. Just because you don't agree with someone's political beliefs doesn't mean that those beliefs are invalid or treacherous. The main reason American political life has become so poisonous is the failure of a lot of people on both sides of the fence to accept this. We can do without importing that kind of noxiousness to Ireland.

One of the silliest contentions last week was that this golf date would somehow backfire on McIlroy and affect his game for the worse. Of course it will. After all, the Masters is just over a month away and he is sure to face the wrath of the crowd at Augusta National, that well-known redoubt of liberals and left-wingers.

The fact that he'll be playing so many big tournaments on the PGA Tour may explain why McIlroy was reluctant to insult the office of the President. Or perhaps he accepted the invitation out of courtesy or curiosity, or just because he thought it would be a very interesting thing to do. We don't know why he accepted it just as we just don't why Tiger Woods did a few months back, without being subjected to the same kind of condemnation aimed at McIlroy.

Sportsmen have gone to worse places and met worse people. In 2016, the women's world boxing championships took place in Kazakhstan, where an authoritarian regime has a terrible record for human rights violations.

Numerous international championships took place in Russia, whose own autocrat was helping President Assad of Syria lay Aleppo to waste. Formula One held a Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates, where flogging and stoning are legal penalties, online criticism of the government is forbidden and the state security services have a record of kidnapping and torturing their enemies. The world squash championships were held in Egypt, one of the worst states in the world for both religious and press freedom. The IAAF held a round of the Diamond League in Qatar, where hundreds of immigrant labourers, slave labourers really, have died building the stadiums for the 2022 football World Cup.

If anyone withdrew from those events on the grounds of conscience, I missed it. And when the biggest single sport events of all, the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, take place in Russia and Qatar, I don't think we can expect any withdrawals either.

There has been a remarkable silence from the world's top footballers as regards Qatar when surely they might be in a position to exert pressure on the authorities to improve working conditions.

You'd need to be a simpleton of some standing to regard Donald Trump as the gold standard of evil in this world. Or to regard McIlroy's round of golf as a serious offence when sportsmen will lend tacit support to any regime, no matter how obnoxious, provided it has the wherewithal to host major championships. Some of the most fervent critics of McIlroy will be those who recently mourned the death of Fidel Castro. Why Trump banning the citizens of seven Muslim states from entering the US is unforgivable but Castro imprisoning citizens of Cuba for trying to get there is cool, well that's a mystery I cannot solve. Michael D probably knows the answer.

You can call this 'whataboutery' if you like. Be my guest. I'm all for 'whataboutery'. Or, as it's also known, putting things into context.

So why so much criticism of McIlroy? Perhaps because those who've taken offence with him on previous occasions are using the current controversy as a handy excuse to take a few more cheap shots at him. In their eyes McIlroy's failure to declare unequivocally that he wanted to represent Ireland rather than Britain at the Olympics is his Original Sin, never to be forgiven.

The round with Trump, his withdrawal from the Olympics, even his personal life are all grist to the mill of these super-patriots. What really gets their goat is McIlroy's utter refusal to play by the rules of their game. He has not taken the opportunity to wrap a tricolour around himself on an 18th green, no insincere apology has been offered to placate the Twitter twits, no fulsome declaration of how much he loves Ireland has been forthcoming.

It drives them nuts. As does the fact that, in an age when celebrity is a largely debased coinage, McIlroy has become rich and famous not by acting the gas man on Reality TV or by taking his kit off in public but by possession of an extraordinary ability which he has honed by an enormous amount of hard work. Sport remains one of the few genuine meritocracies. The carpers can say what they want about McIlroy but they cannot deny his talent.

Sometimes I think Rory is a bit like Van Morrison, another Northern Irish genius who never quite got his due in terms of affection from people down here. There was a suspicion of Van because when things kicked off in the North he never came out and said which side he was on. The truth was that, like all true artists, Van was on his own side - and so is Rory McIlroy. He does not win for you or for me or for the fans or for The Irish Nation, he wins for himself. All the greats do. McIlroy is just the one who doesn't bother pretending otherwise.

No doubt the next time McIlroy has a bad round his detractors will crow on social media that he's had his just deserts for not damning Trump. They did the same thing to Tom Brady at half-time in the Super Bowl. Brady had the last laugh and so will Rory.

Genius always does.

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