Thursday 18 January 2018

Smoothing the thorny issue of national identity

Rory McIlroy has become the Irish Open's most significant benefactor
Rory McIlroy has become the Irish Open's most significant benefactor

Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy has become the Irish Open's most significant benefactor since its launch back in 1927. His contribution to an often troubled championship comfortably outshines even that of Seve Ballesteros, the event's inspiration during the resurgent 1980s.

Now, all that remains is the full acceptance by those in the southern part of this island of McIlroy as a genuine Irish sporting hero. He should be clasped to our hearts with the same warmth and affection that was reserved for such giants from the North as Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Pat Jennings and Martin O'Neill.

In the process, we would be reciprocating feelings that were very evident from the player last weekend. And we would be acknowledging, without reservation, a reality which was articulated so admirably by another fine Ulster golfer, Garth McGimpsey, when he said: "I consider myself to have dual nationality ­- British on one hand and Irish on the other."

McGimpsey went on: "There's no way around that. But there was nobody more proud of playing for Ireland than I was. Through 226 senior international matches, I was proud to be part of winning Irish teams and never had a problem in standing for the Irish national anthem."

In the aftermath of McIlroy's magnificent triumph at The K Club, I put to him the seemingly odd questions: "Why are you doing this? Where does it come from?" His response, both moving and revealing, was quite a way removed from the routine of just another week at another course on tour, where he would be attempting to play the best he could.

From thoughts rooted in the US, he talked of looking to Ireland and giving himself "a reason to go back for every year". He added: "And not just for myself, but for other people. I wanted a real, fulfilling reason to give it my all. That's really what this is about."

Our Holywood star then made the remarkable point: "I'm here for other people and for other causes. And that gives me more fulfilment than hitting those golf shots on 16 and 18." All of which was reflected in a donation of more than €1m to three local charities.

Nothing in the past has come even close to matching the way the Irish Open has been transformed by the involvement of the Rory Foundation. Granted, Joe Flanagan of Carrolls readily claimed: "If you had Seve, you felt you had the makings of a successful event." And it is true that the irrepressible Spaniard generated tremendous excitement from his debut in 1976 at Portmarnock right through the 1980s and beyond.

As a shrewd businessman, however, Ballesteros was well paid for his efforts: the £89,391 in winnings he collected from nine events, culminating in his third triumph in 1986, and considerably more than that in appearance fees.

McIlroy, on the other hand, can be credited with genuine philanthropy. As Tommy Shields, a great McIlroy fan and a one-time footballer with Linfield and Ards, told me last week: "Apart from a tradition of punching above our weight, we Ulstermen have given our best to the world over the last few centuries."

When there was much celebration at the remarkable run of Major victories from Ulster players, Graeme McDowell, McIlroy and Darren Clarke, I found McGimpsey's reaction especially interesting. "Right now, after Darren's win, people are emphasising Northern Ireland because its smallness has the effect of magnifying the achievement all the more," he said. "It makes an attractive statistic. But an equally attractive statistic, in my view, is the Majors from Ireland. That's unbelievable - a cause for celebration throughout the whole of the island."

Almost predictably, David Feherty took a more mischievous view of what is unquestionably a complex issue, even to the point of congratulating Padraig Harrington on becoming the first Irish winner of the Open Championship. But what about Fred Daly? "Fred wasn't Irish," insisted Feherty, his one-time assistant at Balmoral. "I can assure you that Fred considered himself to be British. He drove an orange Hillman Avenger, for God's sake!"

Feherty might have been speaking for McIlroy, however, a fellow native of Co Down, when he added: "I'm very proud to be Irish. And it's not a political thing; it's an emotional thing. I think most people search for an identity. We have the choice. If you want to be British in Northern Ireland, you can be. The truth is that I feel just as much at home in Donegal, or Kerry, or Dublin, as I would in Bangor."

It is remarkable to think of McIlroy making his Irish Open debut as a 16-year-old at Carton House in 2005, only a month after capturing the West of Ireland title. And he opened with an impressive 71, just three strokes off the lead, only to slump to a second-round 81 which saw him miss the cut by four strokes.

Nine years later at Fota Island, McIlroy hinted at a serious, long-term commitment to the event. "As a person, my natural instinct is to make sure that people are OK," he said. "I like to take care of people. But I'm finding that concentrating more on myself has been a good thing."

Employing a phrase attributed to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, he continued: "There's this great quote 'Know Thyself'. I suppose I could sum it up by saying that it has been a great time for exploring myself." That exploration led to talks the following winter with Colm McLoughlin of Dubai Duty Free and from there, to the €4m event we witnessed last weekend.

Meanwhile, in the context of those glorious fairway wood shots last Sunday, it was interesting to note his subsequent comment on RTE. Apparently a problem which prompted fear of shots going left at the Masters was spotted by his coach Michael Bannon, who sorted things out prior to the run of three events leading to last weekend. "It has bedded in nicely," said the player, "and I feel I have a really good structure now."

This was certainly evident in his play over the finishing three holes, which inevitably brought to mind Christy O'Connor's glorious eagle-birdie-eagle finish to the Carrolls International at Royal Dublin in 1966. And you could imagine Himself nodding in approval at the beautiful, balanced tempo with which those shots were executed.

During a recent visit I made to Christy's home, he reserved special comment for our finest young talent. "If you look at a lot of tournaments, Rory doesn't seem to start all that well," said Christy. "Geez, if he started well, he'd have them crippled altogether.

"As for his technique: in a golf swing, rhythm is hugely important. They have other words for it, but rhythm is what I've always called it. And he has it."

He concluded: "I was 26 when I played by first tournament - the 1951 Open at Royal Portrush. Rory's made millions by that age, but he's such a nice lad. On top of the world and he's only a baby. My God, he has an awful load to carry."

Indeed. But it seemed a lot less onerous last weekend, when he had to fight back the tears at the sound of his home fans cheering him to the echo.

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