Sport Golf

Sunday 17 November 2019

An Olympic-sized minefield

Rory McIlroy is not the only one in a tight corner over golf being part of the Olympics, says Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy should not be concerned about feeling more British than Irish. In fact, his troubled attitude towards representative golf is entirely understandable against a background of the most ham-fisted and unthinking administrators in the history of sport in these islands.

I refer to the British bodies charged with the running of the game at various amateur and professional levels. And nothing illustrated their contrariness better than the events of 1949.

That was when Portmarnock played host to the British Amateur Championship, but Harry Bradshaw, who happened to be born about 40 miles down the road in Co Wicklow, was not considered for the Ryder Cup team because he was an 'overseas' player. Never mind that he was eminently qualified, having lost a play-off for the Open that year, before winning the Irish Open at Belvoir Park.

So many similarly contradictory situations have occurred over the years that McIlroy is entitled to have a somewhat blurred view of his circumstances. One senses him feeling his Britishness could be diminished were he to represent Ireland in the 2016 Olympic Games. Which is utterly unfounded. Just as playing for British Ryder Cup teams didn't make The Brad and Christy O'Connor less Irish.

Bradshaw, incidentally, wasn't considered eligible for the 1951 Ryder Cup team either. In fact, it was only when he represented the British PGA on a four-man tour to South Africa the following year that they accepted the silliness of the situation and accorded him overdue Ryder Cup status in 1953.

Five years later, County Louth's Philomena Garvey, the reigning British Women's champion, felt obliged to withdraw from the 1958 Curtis Cup side when the blazer badge incorporating emblems of the four home countries was changed to the Union Jack. Though insisting she did not mean "any slight or offence to Great Britain", Miss Garvey believed it would have been "disloyal to my country were I to accept and wear such an emblem."

As for the Walker Cup: it wasn't until the 31st staging of the event at Sunningdale in 1987 that Amhrán na bhFiann was played for the first time as an acknowledgement of Ireland's involvement. And one imagines this was not unrelated to its coming to Portmarnock four years later.

The Ryder Cup side eventually became Great Britain and Ireland in 1973 when, ironically, O'Connor made the last of 10 successive appearances.

Meanwhile, the European Tour were making their own contribution to divisiveness in golf on this island. From a position where they simply identified each tour member by his commercial attachment, they took to highlighting the player's country, in 1988. Whereby David Feherty became "N Ireland" and Eamonn Darcy became "Ireland".

As a further refinement, we now have the addition of a flag beside each player, with the cross of St George, a red hand and a crown, meant to signify Northern Ireland.

On which point, can someone enlighten me as to the diplomatic or political context in which this flag is supposed to represent Northern Ireland? When I asked Ken Schofield, executive director of the European Tour until 2005, what it was all about, he replied: "I honestly can't remember any policy decision on this. It has always been accepted that Ireland played as one in golf." Precisely.

They have done so in the World Cup (Canada Cup) and the Dunhill Cup. In fact, McIlroy and his Ireland partner, Graeme McDowell, walked behind the Tricolour prior to the event in China last November. As a team representing the whole of the island, there was no good reason why they should have been asked to acknowledge such a flag, but on this particular occasion nobody questioned it.

Reflecting on a marvellous Dunhill Cup triumph at St Andrews in 1990 when he captained the Ireland team, David Feherty said: "I'm very proud to be Irish. It's not a political thing; it's an emotional thing. I think most people search for an identity and if you want to be British in Northern Ireland, you can be."

Garth McGimpsey, Ireland's most successful amateur of the last 30 years, shares this view. "I consider myself to have dual nationality, British on the one hand and Irish on the other," he said. "There's no way around that. But there was nobody more proud of playing for Ireland than I was, through 226 senior international matches."

One could imagine Northern rugby players saying the same thing, especially Willie John McBride, whose success as Lions captain in South Africa in 1974 had much to do with an insistence that he had no English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish players in his team; they were simply Lions.

It may seem churlish to give a young player a helping hand and then expect something in return. But in golf, as in other walks of life, loyalty should mean something. As in, for instance, what Manchester United's Alex Ferguson felt he was entitled to expect from Wayne Rooney when they had their very public spat.

McIlroy received a total of €14,700 in grants from the Irish Golf Trust in annual increments of €700, €3,000, €5,000 and €6,000 between 2003 and 2006. Though it may be only a drop in the ocean compared with the $11.5m (€8.8m) he is playing for in Atlanta this week, it came at a time when I'm sure his parents greatly welcomed such help in furthering their son's golfing career.

If he decides to compete for Britain in the Olympics, the frontline beneficiaries of his talent will be officials who had no effective input into his development as a player. By way of mitigation, it has been suggested in certain quarters in Northern Ireland that he would be doing Irish golf a favour by opting for the British team.

This is based on a notion floated by Pádraig Harrington in one of his more light-headed diplomatic moods that by opting for Britain, McIlroy would leave an opening in the Irish team which would otherwise not be available. A sort of grand gesture, you might say. Somehow, I suspect his many Irish admirers would prefer to see the player battling for Olympic gold wearing the green of this island, as he did in amateur teams for the GUI.

Of course it's all a bit of a mess. Given the political realities foisted on us by history, however, there is no obvious way of avoiding hurt other than McIlroy opting out of the Games altogether, which he shouldn't have to do. And having done wonders in maintaining unity in Irish golf through very difficult times, even to the point of dealing in two currencies, the GUI and the ILGU could be facing one of their toughest challenges yet.

In the absence of a single administrative body for golf in Ireland, they are set to be asked to select a male and female representative to compete for Team Ireland in the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China. And what if a leading candidate happened to be from Northern Ireland, as would have been the case with McIlroy seven or eight years ago?

By way of precedent, it's not difficult to imagine the can of worms this would open for such a player further down the road, were he or she in line for a place in the Olympics proper. Especially if they happened to consider themselves Northern Irish and British.

By the time of the Rio Olympics, it is anticipated that an umbrella body incorporating representatives from the GUI, ILGU and PGA Irish Region will be in place to represent golf on the Olympic Council of Ireland. With regard to the Olympics, however, it won't have the power to nominate participants: its function will be purely administrative. As it happens, the English, Scottish and Welsh Golf Unions are currently in the process of forming a body which will affiliate to the British Olympic Committee.

It's a minefield, which makes it all the more imperative that officials tread very warily so as to avoid causing offence. And if enlightenment eventually manages to sink home, the current McIlroy controversy will have delivered a very worthwhile dividend.

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