He’s tough. That’s what I like about Rory McIlroy. And I’m not just talking about the mental fortitude and resilience required to compete on the international stage. The County Down man is brave enough to speak his mind in a world increasingly characterised by vacuous and meaningless soundbites. It takes a lot of courage to speak out, to reveal your inner thoughts to the world, regardless of the potential consequences. It’s a tough enough thing for any of us to do. Think how challenging it must be to speak honestly when you’ve a raft of sponsors, fans, and business partners to please or placate. This is the brutal world Ireland’s most famous sportsman has to navigate. To say it’s rather tricky is to utter the greatest understatement of all time. And yet McIlroy consistently manages it. Honesty truly is a priceless commodity in this superficial world.
For someone so young, the 27-year old golfer’s career has been notable for regular moments of mild controversy and unwarranted intrusion. Although McIlroy is a consummate media performer who’s unquestionably a credit to his country, there remains that welcome tendency to speak his mind. Here is someone refreshingly unafraid to tell it like it is. We may not always like what McIlroy says, but there’s no doubt his opinions are borne of sincerity, that he speaks from the heart. Take the latest episode. As most of you will know, the Holywood golfer has withdrawn from the forthcoming Rio Olympics due to concerns over the Zika virus. Sadly, but wholly predictably, McIlroy’s decision has prompted a tidal wave of ire and indignation from a host of individuals, many of whom don’t know the first thing about golf or its priorities. Poor Rory has been accused of everything, from letting his country down to abandoning the responsibility to promote and develop the sport that’s made him a global superstar. I’m not a massive golf fan, but from the outside much of the reaction seems unjust and unreasonable, often bordering on the hysterical. Typical of the man, McIlroy hasn’t shied away, although his comments last week about the perceived importance of Olympic golf has perhaps added fuel to the fire.
My own reaction to McIlroy’s decision has changed since the initial announcement was made. When I first heard it, I must admit I was a little incredulous at McIlroy’s rationale. While I respected his entitlement to decide which competitions he participates in, I was a little sceptical about the reasons. The Zika virus? Surely the risks are minuscule and pale in comparison with the prestige of representing your country at an Olympic Games. Millions of young athletes dream of going to the Olympics. It’s an honour and a deep privilege to be afforded the opportunity. And yet here was someone turning that down. What was McIlroy thinking? However, the more I thought about it, the more I understood where Rory was coming from.
The health risks posed by the Zika virus are real, and have been well documented recently. McIlroy has made no secret of his desire to start a family with fiancee Erica Stoll. Regardless of the untested severity of the risks, why should he jeopardise or compromise any of that? That’s all very well I hear his critics yell, while alleging that the withdrawal has nothing to do with health, but everything to do with the lack of prestige offered by the Olympic golf competition. McIlroy has taken a lot from his sport, so the argument goes, there therefore must be a duty, an obligation to give back? This misses the point, though. McIlroy has made his feelings about Olympic golf abundantly clear. Although stressing that it was an honour to be selected, the Irish number one has repeatedly affirmed that Olympic golf is not at the top of his priorities.
When explaining his decision recently, McIlroy recounted a conversation he had with Irish Olympian, Sonia O’Sullivan. Here the golfer explained that while O’Sullivan had an Olympics once every four years, he has an Olympics four times each year. His allusion to the importance of the Majors hardly needs explained. The point made is intrinsic to this discussion, though. In an individual sport like track-and-field athletics, the Olympic Games are the absolute pinnacle, the very summit of aspiration and achievement. That’s just not the case in golf. The Majors are every golfer’s essential priority and always will be.
To risk your health or that of your family’s-no matter how slim the worries-for a competition that isn’t fundamental to you doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Clearly many of McIlroy’s fellow golfers feel the same way. McIlroy’s rival Jordan Speith and compatriots Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell (to name but a few), are the latest to make similar calculations to Ireland’s poster boy. Moreover, while we have to take their explanations at face value, the reasons for the Olympic exodus are actually quite irrelevant. It’s a moot point. The reality is, no elite sportsman needs to justify their participation or otherwise at any event. These guys play to win trophies. That’s their only priority and focus. Amateurs play for enjoyment, professionals play to win. They don’t have to explain themselves to anyone. And it’s naive in the extreme to think otherwise.
For any individual, health is a non-negotiable priority. It’s a perverse world where that needs to be explained. Those shouting loudest on this issue need to ask the following question: would they risk exposure to Zika unnecessarily? Rory McIlroy doesn’t owe anything. Not to golf. Not to Ireland. Not to the Olympics. Despite that, no-one has done more for Irish golf and modern Irish sport than the pride of Holywood. Anyone who watched the recent Irish Open will know that. McIlroy is as generous as he is talented, and has earned the right to decide where he performs and why. Anyone considering doing anything other than cheering golf’s brightest star at Royal Troon this afternoon is advised to keep that in mind.