The Royal & Ancient Golf Club (the R&A, to those cool cats that prefer a good abbreviation) have needlessly dredged up a premature argument surrounding Rory McIlroy and his participation at the 2016 Olympic Games – represent Great Britain, Ireland or nobody. Newspapers have been all over their supposed proclamation that he must play as part of the Republic of Ireland’s squad and, now that they’ve confirmed it’s not set in stone, we’re no nearer to a decision.
Problems stem from the fact that McIlroy has represented Ireland at golf’s World Cup on two occasions. Under some rules that nobody seems to truly understand or care about, the world number 2 may be forced to represent Ireland, taking away the choice he has dreaded. Although he considers himself to be “British” (because he is), being from Northern Ireland gives you a close association with your bordering neighbours, particularly when golfing authorities on the island govern the whole of Ireland.
To avoid having to pick between Team GB and Team ROI – if Ireland aren’t known as that, they should be – Rory has suggested he might just pull out of the Rio Olympics, rendering any discussion over his allegiance moot. Hardly a great start for golf’s governing bodies, who will be keen to use the sport’s stars to spread golf across the world and improve its reputations.
McIlroy also risks worsening the public’s perception of golf’s inclusion in the Olympic programme, akin to debates over tennis. Both enjoy lucrative tours, replete with well-followed “majors” that the athletes almost certainly favour over a potential gold medal. One of the world’s top golfers may be forgiven for using the national debate as a smokescreen, hiding the fact he might just want a rest amidst a schedule littered with The Open, the PGA Championship and a World Golf Championship event.
Do we really need him, though? The 2016 Games are, as the name suggests, three years away and there’s no guarantee McIlroy will still be the big cheese by then. Sure, he’s still young and expert opinion (ie. not my opinion) suggests he’ll only get better and eventually challenge Tiger Woods for the recent title wins record, but he could easily slide down the rankings. He’s already had a torrid start to 2013, missing cuts and displaying a decidedly dodgy attitude to professionalism that is, at best, at odds to the Olympic ideal. There’s plenty of time to get back on track before then, perhaps synchronise with his new clubs, but there’s no guarantee.
When it comes to who else is eligible for Team GB, it’s hard to predict. The qualification criteria, reliant on the IGF world rankings, is likely to involve the world’s top 15 players, irrespective of what country they’d represent. Definite candidates include Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, currently ranked 4th, 5th and 12th respectively. Their problem is, as has been well documented, their inability to clinch a major. Not since Paul Lawrie won The Open in 1999 has a player from England, Scotland or Wales done it. Such incapability on the biggest stage hardly strikes confidence that they’ll add to the medal count in Rio. It all depends on whether they consider the Olympics to be a major or not…
With McIlroy on the fence, the three Englishmen unable to get the job done and perennial “do it for the team” mean Ian Poulter lying outside of the qualification bracket, we turn to Graeme McDowell, last weekend’s RBC Heritage in atrocious conditions. Returning to the world’s top ten and currently sixth in the European Tour’s “Race to Dubai”, G-Mac seems like a great bet to bring glory to Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Just one problem. McDowell has also represented Ireland at the World Cup. D’oh!
If he’s been umming and arring over who to play for, it’s not been well-documented. Should the IOC be alright with him playing for Team GB (if he wants to, I’m not forcing him), he could be in with a shot. Or he could fold completely. There are other outside bets; 2013 has already seen wins for the likes of Stephen Gallacher, Chris Wood and Jamie Donaldson in the Far East. David Howell has been pinpointed as a potential winner of this week’s Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea.
There’s so much depth in this country, but it’s not really worth predicting the future. What’s for sure is that the discussions will rumble on way after McIlroy decides who he wants to play for. What’s even more for sure, Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang will have won all four majors by then and be the outright favourite in Brazil. It’s possible…