Tuesday 24 April 2018

'Sonia O'Sullivan told me, 'If the Olympics are your pinnacle, it's different. They're not' - Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy and his fiancée Erica Stoll Photo: Reuters / Paul Childs
Rory McIlroy and his fiancée Erica Stoll Photo: Reuters / Paul Childs

Oliver Brown

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.

Sonia O'Sullivan Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Sonia O'Sullivan Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

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 £350m 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. He currently lives in a €9m 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.

McIlroy refuses to shrink, though, from debates on either side of the Atlantic, especially when Brexit has such serious ramifications for Northern Ireland. All day, 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 precarious concerned his role at this summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where golf is returning to the Games after 112 years. Having agonised over his decision to represent Ireland instead of Britain - 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," he says.

"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."

Several other headline names have pulled out, including fellow Irish golfers Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell, and former Masters champion Adam Scott, who said he was too busy to fit it in.

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.

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 runner who won the 5,000m silver medal 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 refuses to confirm a rumour that his nuptials to Stoll next summer will take place at Ashford Castle in County Mayo.

"We want to keep it to ourselves as much as we possibly can," he says.

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 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."

Irish Independent

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