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  • Rory McIlroy is the unofficial host of this year’s British Open, an honor that would have once felt like a burden for Northern Ireland’s biggest star.
By Michael Rosenberg
July 17, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Rory McIlroy did not literally grew up here, at Royal Portrush, but he did grow up in the belly of Northern Ireland’s golf scene, and so he is this British Open’s unofficial host. Graeme McDowell was born here. Darren Clarke lives nearby. But McIlroy is a bigger star than both.

It can be hard to be the host. McIlroy saw other stars here this week and thought they looked out of place, like if you turned on your TV and saw somebody broadcasting from your living room. He has to put on his “welcome to my home, hope you have fun” face and still get his work done. And then there is the significant matter of wondering what everybody thinks of the place.

McIlroy knows what most players here have probably not considered: that bringing the Open to Northern Ireland is not like your local city landing a Super Bowl. It is, McIlroy said, “a massive thing for the country.” It is a political announcement and a public-safety all-clear. This week, Tiger Woods sounded baffled that the R&A had not held the Open here since 1951, because it is such a fabulous course. It apparently did not occur to Woods that for 30 years, Northern Ireland was considered unsafe. 

If you are not an expert in The Troubles, that’s OK. For a long time, neither was McIlroy. He was eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, marking the end of what was essentially a 30-year civil war. The Troubles cannot be boiled to a sentence, but they were essentially about British rule vs. a United Ireland, and between mostly protestant pro-Britain Unionists and mostly Catholic Nationalists.

Protestants and Catholics. McIlroy has tried to write his own story, similar to the stories that Woods and Brooks Koepka and Jack Nicklaus wrote: of a father introducing his son to the game, and the son becoming a story. But when you come from Northern Ireland, the national story sticks to you wherever you go, especially if you’re famous.

There have been many times when McIlroy seemed deeply uncomfortable with this. In 2012 he was quoted saying, “Maybe it was the way I was brought up, I don t know, but I have always felt more of a connection with the UK than with Ireland,” which caused a furor in Northern Ireland; he released a statement clarifying his views that day. There was speculation he would compete in the 2016 Olympics for Great Britain; he chose Ireland, pulled out ostensibly because of Zika virus fears, and has essentially said he wants to play for Ireland because of his longtime affiliation with the Golfing Union of Ireland. It is a golfer’s answer to a political question.

“There is no right or wrong answer,” McDowell said Wednesday, “which is difficult for an athlete.”

McIlroy naturally thinks of himself as the Northern Ireland boy who shot a course record 61 at Portrush, who met Clarke there on his birthday, who grew up mostly in a time of peace. But he is also the man whose great-uncle, Joe McIlroy, was killed in his kitchen in 1972. The murder has never been solved, but it isn’t exactly a mystery, either. A news story the next day described the McIlroys as “one of two Catholic families living on Sandhill Drive.” Think, for a moment, about a world in which virtually everybody is keeping that score.

McIlroy has tried to avoid politics, and if this Open had come to Portrush five years ago, McIlroy might feel like an awkward mess right now. He might worry about saying the wrong thing and offending a large group. But the years have made him wiser.

“I’ve never seen him in such a good place mentally,” McDowell said. “He’s grown up a huge amount."

McIlroy was asked the Olympic question again Wednesday (he plans to play in 2020) and he said “I think personally, I needed to do a lot of inner thought and sort of: Is this important to me? Why do I want to play it? Who do I want to represent? … at the start, whenever I was thinking of playing the Olympics, I think I let other people’s opinions weigh on that decision. At the end of the day, it’s my decision. I can’t please everyone.”

These days McIlroy appears to look at the Olympic question as having freedom of choice, instead of being forced to choose. He needed to get to this place at some point, because he will always be a star from Northern Ireland, and political questions will always loom.

The Good Friday Agreement includes the “principle of consent,” which says “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people.” In the 2016 Brexit vote, when most of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, 56% of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Brexit vote has rippled; this past May, two polls indicated that an Irish majority favor a united Ireland.

McIlroy does not have to weigh in on that. But he does have to make sure he isn’t weighed down by it. His comfort with himself should—perhaps this week—return him to the top of major-championship leaderboards. He seems like he will look at the fans at Royal Portrush and be happy he gets to play in front of them, rather than worry about what they think of him. McIlroy has always played his best golf when his mind was clear. In a country that was, for so long, at war with itself, Rory McIlroy sounds at peace with himself.

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