Sport Golf

Friday 24 March 2017

James Lawton on McIlroy: It is his right, his life, his future

Only McIlroy can decide what health risk he is willing to take

James Lawton

James Lawton

Rory McIlroy has dressed himself in the clothes of a passionate sporting patriot. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy has dressed himself in the clothes of a passionate sporting patriot. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Life can be perilous and sometimes ends in unfortunate circumstances and Rory McIlroy's apparently heightened awareness of this at the age of 27 is absolutely no cause for so much of the outrage that now gathers around his head.

But then it is also true that his withdrawal from the Brazil Olympics on account of the threat posed by the Zika virus was guaranteed an emotionally complicated reaction.

This is because along with amassing a vast fortune - and proving himself one of golf's most instinctive talents - he has also dressed himself in the clothes of a passionate sporting patriot.

Again, this is no cause for criticism. His fairway show of commitment to the cause of his Northern Ireland countrymen at the football European Championships was for so many a heart-warming confirmation of a nature which had resisted so much of the self-absorption that can come with extraordinary success.

Where there may be a problem, though, is that Zika might be seen by some as a convenient excuse to avoid a chore that might have come to seem less than overwhelmingly relevant to career momentum, which certainly needs some reviving after last week's meltdown at the US Open on the harsh pastures of Oakmont.

The truth is that Olympic golf, like tennis, is a sporting extra - something that sounded good to some but for those involved at the most competitive end was never going to intrude too pressingly on their most significant career goals.

His heaviest critics - inevitably internet trolls - sneer that he isn't pregnant - a condition which can lead to some of the virus's worst effects - but their bile is unleavened by the reality that many health experts have refused to dismiss significant risk to all groups and not least in the reproduction potential of young people. Whatever the weight of suspicion over McIlroy's motives, there is one unanswerable point to be made on his behalf.

It is his right, his life, his future and no-one but he is entitled to make a judgement on what is an acceptable level of risk.

You may say that there is always risk in life, that men have gone to war for the love of their country, but if you do you have surely lost touch with a grown-up perspective. Fighting for your country is not the same as playing Olympic golf for it. McIlroy had an option, a perfectly reasonable one, when he came to consider the Zika question.

He could miss one not hugely significant turn of his sporting world or he could say that he would go to Brazil for the fleeting glory of his country.

Non-existent

And he could submerge concerns which nobody - and certainly not medically qualified observers - is inclined to dismiss as non-existent.

There is in the McIlroy story perhaps a small echo of an old sports controversy in North America, when a baseball star was suspended for drug abuse and was accused of letting down the youth of America. Marvin Miller, the leader of the players' union, produced a searing rebuttal.

He said the duty of inspiring young people and lovers of sport did not reside in the day-by-day lives of the professionals but the values they were given at home. "Professional sportsmen get paid for playing sport and they are rewarded on the basis of their ability.

"No-one signs a contract which says you will be an inspiration to the youth of the nation. What it says is that you will pitch a baseball the best way you can. End of story."

Such logic is surely impossible to swerve in the case of Rory McIlroy, who is free of any crime and has broken no commitment except, perhaps, an emotional one imposed upon him by others.

No doubt the furore will burn on for some time and crackle along with some indignation. Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy will proceed with his life and his own understanding of the level of risk he is prepared to tolerate. At the end of it all, his position is unassailable.

He is, after all, a golfer who will one day have to deal with life beyond the acclamation of the fairways, which can be brittle enough as anyone who was at Augusta some years ago will tell you. It was when some members of the gallery yelled to a struggling, hero, "Hey, buddy, didn't you use to be Seve Ballesteros."

McIlroy hasn't lost his identity or his purpose. He has made a decision which a lot of people don't like and he is perfectly entitled to say "too bad". He isn't going to Brazil. It may not be a life-or-death decision but it is his. His decision, his right.

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