Rory McIlroy has discussed the possibility of a united Ireland
For somebody so scrupulously polite, Rory McIlroy has quite a habit of triggering controversy. We meet in Dublin, the day after the Brexit vote, and one of the world’s finest golfers has already ruffled feathers by asking on Twitter if we can ‘take a mulligan on 2016’, starting the year afresh.
He talks witheringly of Nigel Farage, lightning rod for the Leave campaign, and does little to conceal his distaste for the rise of Donald Trump in America, which he now calls home.
Once he kept both feet firmly outside the political realm – he learnt from his upbringing in a transitional Northern Ireland that it was often safer to keep his mouth shut – but this is one occasion on which he seems determined to be heard.
"People are wanting to protect their own, to close their borders,’ McIlroy says. ‘The world would be a much more prosperous place if everyone was able to get along.
"You have Leave saying that we send £350 million to the EU every week and that we should spend it on the NHS instead, but then Farage comes out later and admits he doesn’t know where that money is going to go.
"This is the first year I have really got into politics and I have seen, from following the US presidential election, how people want to become secure and protected against the volatility of Isil and suchlike. That’s the big reason Leave won the day."
The irony is that McIlroy could not cast a vote, having given up residency.
A superstar lifestyle
He currently lives in a £7.5 million house in West Palm Beach, near Miami, where he moved in 2012. In that gilded enclave, it is dicey to express anything resembling anti-Trump sentiment, when almost all top-ranked US golfers lean to the right.
(In the 1993 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in Warwickshire, according to sportswriter and author John Feinstein, not one member of the American team had voted for Bill Clinton.)
The newly politicised McIlroy refuses to shrink, though, from debates on either side of the Atlantic, especially when Brexit has such serious ramifications for his native Northern Ireland. All day, Dublin radio stations have led their bulletins with Sinn Féin’s fresh calls for a vote on Irish reunification.
"If I’m Northern Irish, what’s better?" McIlroy asks. "To be part of the UK and not be in the EU? Or to be in a united Ireland and still belong to the EU? People are going to have to weigh that up." Everywhere he has looked lately, McIlroy has seen dilemmas.
The most pressing, and emphatically the most precarious, concerned his role at this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where golf is returning to the Games after 112 years.
Skipping the Olympics
Having agonised over his decision to represent the Irish instead of the British – a choice mired in sectarian tensions, even though the Golfing Union of Ireland runs the game as an all-Ireland sport – he opted to avoid Brazil altogether amid concerns over the Zika virus and a deteriorating security situation.
It was a dramatic move that could hardly fail to unleash a barrage of disapproval. Soon McIlroy was castigated by Irish Olympians, as boxer Darren O’Neill claimed that the team in Rio would be ‘better off without him’.
But he remains unrepentant. Now 27, he announced his engagement last year to Erica Stoll, a former PGA Tour official whom he met during the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, Illinois, and they are planning to start a family.
While the chances of contracting Zika at the Games have been put at 500,000-1, the clinical link between the virus and microcephaly, a devastating condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads, proved enough to force McIlroy’s hand.
"That’s an instant red flag," he says. "I had consulted a lot of experts in tropical medicine and received my jabs for dengue and yellow fever. I asked, 'What about Zika?' I was told that there was a very low risk, and that when I came back I could have a blood test to see if I was carrying it.
"Ultimately, it was a question of health and well-being – and of security. Look at the Australian Paralympic sailing team, who have had a couple of members mugged in Rio. It’s an unstable place and I just wasn’t comfortable making the trip."
Backlash against McIlroy
It is a grievous blow for golf to be deprived of its most marketable young star for an Olympic tournament whose raison d’être is to internationalise the sport. McIlroy is damned, unfortunately, by the feelings he expressed upon committing to Rio in 2014, when he acknowledged it would be "selfish" for him to ignore his wider responsibilities by refusing to go.
Shane Lowry also pulled out of the Olympics
There is, inescapably, the issue of Olympic golf’s perceived prestige to consider. Several other headline names have pulled out, including former Masters champion Adam Scott, who claimed that Rio was too great an imposition upon his already-groaning summer schedule.
They have been followed through the exit door by Jason Day, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell. But an Olympic gold medal is supposed to signal the peak of accomplishment in one’s sport. If it begins to be treated as simply a logistical headache, then it calls into doubt the right of golf to be part of the Olympic programme at all.
Weighing up the risks of Rio
On a recent flight back from Dubai, the day before he confirmed his Rio withdrawal, McIlroy had his misgivings affirmed by Sonia O’Sullivan, the Irish distance runner who won a silver medal over 5,000 metres at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
"Sonia told me, 'If the Olympics were the pinnacle for you, then it might be a different matter.' The way I have to explain it is, I have four Olympics every year. These guys have one every four years. The risk to them is worth it.
"For me, I haven’t been dreaming about the Olympics my whole life. In my opinion, the risk I was going to face didn’t match what I was playing for. The risk wasn’t worth the reward."
McIlroy on his bride-to-be
As unpleasant as the inquest into McIlroy’s motives has been, he exudes contentment regarding his life away from the course. He and Stoll are organising their wedding for next summer, after he proposed last November in a Paris still traumatised by that month’s terror attacks.
Although McIlroy refuses to confirm a rumour that their nuptials will take place at Ashford Castle in County Mayo – ‘We want to keep it to ourselves as much as we possibly can,’ he says, shyly – there is little question his bride-to-be is smitten with the Emerald Isle.
"Erica loves Ireland. It’s very similar to the place where she grew up, in Rochester, upstate New York, where it’s also very green and leafy."
Not untypically for Dublin in June, as we talk in a suite at the city’s Westbury hotel, it is pouring with rain outside. The weather cannot dampen McIlroy’s enthusiasm, though, for a relationship that has done so much to reorder his priorities.
Life away from the celeb circus
Back when he was dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, he seemed at ease with the attention lavished upon a sporting power couple, even taking part in an exhibition match with her at Madison Square Garden. But his years with Stoll, an understated young woman with whom he is rarely photographed, have convinced him that it is not the red carpet he craves.
"It’s a bit like yin and yang, in terms of what I do on the course and how, when I get home, I’m able to detach myself and just be a normal person," McIlroy says. "It’s great to have that balance, and Erica has given me that. She has made me realise that this is what I want, what I need."
By increments, he is cutting out elements of the celebrity circus that pursues him everywhere. At the Masters last year, he had Niall Horan of One Direction caddying for him during the ceremonial Par 3 contest, but found that the starburst of photographers’ flashbulbs obscured his task of trying to become the second-youngest player ever to complete the career grand slam, after Tiger Woods.
This year, upon his return to Augusta, he pointedly abandoned the Par 3 competition altogether. "I’d never be the film-premiere type," he promises. "I’m a golfer and I want to be known as a golfer."
On the other hand, he is an ambassador for the watch brand Omega, commenting that ‘Omega are part of the Ryder Cup in the US, and the PGA Championship. They are keen to branch out more into golf and that’s a great thing.’
His instinctive modesty was carefully nurtured by McIlroy’s mother, Rosie. She worked night shifts in a factory to pay for her son’s lofty golfing aspirations, while the young Rory, an only child, refined his talents by chipping balls into the family washing machine.
Through it all, she instilled in him the virtue of humility. "My mum was definitely the disciplinarian in the house, the one telling me what to do and what not to do," he says.
‘"My dad is the one I go to if I have problems with my golf career, but for anything else I’ll always go and talk to my mum. The bond between a mother and a son is very close."
It is an abiding memory of McIlroy’s victory in the Open at Hoylake two summers ago that the first face he picked out in the crowd was his mother’s. "She was very reluctant," he recalls.
"She was standing there beside the grandstand and I had to wave her over. I appreciate that my parents didn’t raise their kid to be this incredibly well-known guy. They raised me to try to give me the best opportunities in life – and this is what I’ve done with it."
McIlroy, as a quadruple major champion whose progression invites many a comparison with his idol, Woods, does not want for the accoutrements and connections that fame bestows.
Next for McIlroy
At the time of our interview, he has just spent a day at the Royal Dublin golf club with Jack Nicklaus, swung through Paris to watch Northern Ireland’s match against Germany at the European Championship, flown to the Gulf for a night out, and booked tickets with childhood friend Harry Diamond for Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight-title fight in London.
This week, McIlroy heads to the Open at Royal Troon for his tilt at a second Claret Jug, and he could scarcely be less bothered that he has never played the course before. After all, this is a young man who played another Open venue, the fiendish Royal Portrush on the Antrim coast, in a course-record 61 when he was only 16.
"If I play well, most courses suit my game," he says, grinning. He will be besieged for autographs as usual, but McIlroy can console himself that, whether in triumph or defeat, he can catch the first plane back to the gated grandeur of West Palm Beach, where he and his future wife enjoy lives of blissful anonymity.
"No one bothers us, because there are so many stars there in their own right, and we can go and do whatever we want.’ He almost visibly relaxes at the thought.
"I like it best, I suppose, when no one knows who I am."