Wednesday 26 June 2019

Nationality must seem trivial for ruler of the world

Tommy Conlon

Last September, Rory McIlroy put his house in Northern Ireland up for sale and in December he was reported to have bought a mansion in Florida.

He was trading up but he could afford it. In August, he won his second golf Major. He earned almost €12m in 2012, in tournament money alone. A new ten-year contract with Nike worth somewhere between $200m and $250m was due to kick in on January 1.

In October, he visited Turkey to play in a contrived invitational event for another very large cheque. A documentary team from BBC Northern Ireland was there to capture some footage. Last Thursday night they broadcast the resulting programme.

In one scene a gleaming black BMW pulls up outside a palatial hotel in the Turkish city of Antalya. The back door is opened and out of it alights McIlroy and his girlfriend, the Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. They are escorted down a marble corridor surrounded by an entourage of nervous men in suits. It is a reception usually reserved for a visiting head of state and his consort, or for the secular gods of the entertainment industry. Contemporary sport has its own global royalty these days too and in that moment it was clear that McIlroy had become part of that rarefied firmament.

His talent, his fame and his achievements make him a modern-day master of the universe. He will rub shoulders with major league politicians and king-sized CEOs because they will want to rub shoulders with him. Doors will open all over the world; the invitation cards will be gilded and embossed. Last March, he was a guest at the White House for a state dinner hosted by President Obama in honour of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

His roots are in Holywood, Co Down; his current life is more Hollywood, California. He put the property in NI, with its 14 acres, on the market because his schedule meant he rarely got to use it. The new pad in America will be dark for much of the year too.

McIlroy is 23 years old and revelling in the life of this parallel universe. He is monied up, loved up and Majored up. It so happens that, in addition to his fabulous talent, he has been blessed with some impressive character traits too. Everything about his demeanour points to an unusually mature and self-aware young man. He comes across consistently as affable and good-humoured. He seems to genuinely appreciate the gift for golf with which he was apparently born, and the privileged life that has flowed from that gift.

His is essentially a stateless existence nowadays; it transcends borders and cultures, moving from one luxury hotel to another, one private jet to another. Golf doesn't depend on nationalism or tribal loyalties for its popular appeal and financial might. Its professional exponents are free agents and lone traders; they play for themselves. Most of the time they don't really care, and maybe don't even know, what country they're in when they put the ball on the first tee.

And yet this citizen of the world cannot fully escape his roots. No matter how high he flies, the dreary steeples of Ulster will apparently always loom somewhere on the horizon. There is no getting away from the politics of his identity.

In a newspaper interview last September, he said he felt more British than Irish. The question had concerned the Rio Olympics in 2016 and which country he would choose to represent. "Maybe it was the way I was brought up, I don't know," he stated, "but I have always felt more of a connection with the UK than with Ireland."

It was a startling admission. It stung a lot of people in this country who had just taken it for granted that he considered himself Irish. It was partly to do with that smug native pride which presumes that anyone, given a choice, would only be too delighted to call themselves Irish. He also looked and sounded Irish, if there's such a thing; and he'd been immersed in the Irish golfing system since childhood.

Anyway, he once again addressed the issue in Thursday's documentary. He raised the possibility of opting out altogether, to avoid causing offence to the jilted nation. Personally, I think

he should just follow his heart; be true to himself and follow his inner voice. But it's way more complicated than that for him. One way or another it's a subject that's going to dog him intermittently over the next four years.

"When the soul of a man is born in this country," wrote James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

It is tempting to think that McIlroy's move to Florida isn't just for geographical convenience, proximity to the American golfing circuit: he may be looking for some psychic separation too. Because those nets have come back to haunt him now.

"I was a dreamer," he said in the documentary, "I always thought big and dreamt of big things."

He was dreaming of the world, and now that he has conquered the world in his chosen calling, the issue of who he is and to whom he belongs has never seemed more petty or provincial.

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