PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Nothing To Gain

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
September 10, 2012

As McIlroy's star has grown, so has the scrutiny he's under for everything he does.

We are all three distinct people. Our public self is the person those at work know; our private self is reserved for close friends and family; and our secret self possesses the dreams and desires we share with few, if any -- that novel we want to write, the acting class we want to take, the mountain we want to climb.

Rory McIlroy and his Olympic dilemma are plopped into a position that blurs the line between two of those three. Who we are is a product of where we have been, and the fact McIlroy's roots are in Northern Ireland, with its violent political past and contentious ties to England, makes his indecision about whether to compete for Great Britain or Ireland when golf returns to the Olympics in 2016 a sore subject.

It's really a no-win situation for the young man. There are precious few athletes who have been able to link principle -- their private self -- with their profession – their public self. Jackie Robinson was thrust into it when he was selected to integrate baseball in 1947. Muhammad Ali chose it when he opposed the war in Vietnam War in the 1960s and was blacklisted from professional boxing for nearly four years.

Michael Jordan -- who famously refused to back a Democrat for governor of North Carolina in 1990 by saying "Republicans buy shoes, too," -- and Tiger Woods have chosen to keep their personal opinions far removed from their public self.

Andy Murray is placed in a position similar to McIlroy by being a Scot adopted by Britain because he is the first Brit to win a Grand Slam tennis event since Englishman Fred Perry in 1936. As William Shakespeare wrote: "Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them."

McIlroy, who has won three of his last four tournaments and is the unquestioned best player in the world at age 23, was compelled the day after winning the BMW Championship

to tweet a letter that began this way:

"I was hoping my success on the golf course would be the more popular topic of golfing conversation today! However, the issue of my cultural identity has re-emerged, and with it, the matter of my national allegiance ahead of the Rio Olympics in 2016."

While saying he is "a proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland," McIlroy, who is Catholic, adds that he is "a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That is my background and always will be."

By choosing Great Britain, McIlroy would risk alienating the Irish. If he choses Ireland, he would risk angering the Brits by possibly fanning the flames of unity between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where a common bumper sticker reads: "26+6=1" referring to the 26 countries of Ireland and the six counties in the north.

"As the World No. 1 right now, I wish to be a positive role model and sports person that people respect and enjoy watching," McIlroy said, before adding: "I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics."

How we get to who we are is not an easily understood road by those who have not made the journey with us. I came from a family of Hungarian and Irish immigrants who worked in the factories of Western Pennsylvania and I will never forget being in Mr. Hinneman's eighth period reading class at Neshannock Junior/Senior High School outside New Castle, Pa., on Nov. 22, 1963, when I found out President John Kennedy had been killed.

The Kennedys were heroes in my family and I remember being glued to my TV for four days. At about 2:30 a.m. on June 5, 1968, I was at the all-night dinner dance at New Castle Country Club -- a great Tillinghast track -- celebrating my high school graduation when someone came in and said that Sen. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated after winning the California primary.

I was 17 years old and Bobby Kennedy was my guy. I was president of the student council at Neshanncok High School my senior year and it is clear from my yearbook photo I was even trying to comb my hair like Bobby. My passion about politics has its roots in that day.

Eleven years ago today, on Sept, 11, 2001, I was sitting in my Golf World office in Connecticut shortly before 9 a.m. with the TV on and the sound off, as was my practice, when I looked up and saw something was happening. I turned on the sound and watched in horror as minutes later the second plane struck the World Trade Center.

As someone who lived in New York City for 28 years -- 10 years longer than I lived in Western Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised -- I felt like it was an attack on my home. I got in my car and drove into what those of us who have lived there call The City, as if there could not possibly be another one, to be with those I loved.

In the days that unfolded after the terror attack, my eyes filled with tears many times, not just with pain but also with pride in how well New Yorkers rallied around each other after the attack. New York, New York -- so nice they named it twice!

The paths of our lives deposit us in unpredictable places. McIlroy says he considers himself "a global player" with "a great affinity for the American sports fan" who is fortunate "to be supported by people all over the world."

That all sounds good, but come 2016, when he decides to play for either Great Britain or Ireland in the Olympic Games -- assuming he is still one of the best players in the world -- someone is not going to be happy.

And that will be when McIlroy will truly appreciate the difficulty of juggling his public self with his private self. That is when they will merge. That is when we will find out if he is Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan.