HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland — Long before anyone had ever heard of Rory McIlroy, a young Northern Irish boxer named Barry McGuigan became a national hero by not choosing sides. McGuigan grew up in a very different Northern Ireland from McIlroy, one rife with tension between Protestants loyal to Great Britain and Catholics loyal to Ireland. McGuigan was a Roman Catholic, but as he rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early '80s — McGuigan eventually became the world featherweight champion — he declined to join the political fray. He cast himself neither as British nor Irish, but rather as a neutral sporting ambassador who both Catholics and Protestants could rally around.
"The fact that I wouldn't wear green, white, or gold, or put on a sign that said, 'This is who I represent,' was powerful," McGuigan later said. "Both sides would say, 'Leave the fighting to McGuigan.'"
That was three decades ago, and though "the Troubles" are now mostly resigned to the history books, Northern Irish athletes competing on the international stage are still forced to make the sometimes-awkward decision of whether to represent Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is not an option.
The issue made news this week when McIlroy told the Daily Mail that he "felt more British than Irish," which seemed to suggest that when the 2016 Olympic Games roll around, he will compete under the Union Jack. In a follow-up statement to the media, McIlroy stressed that he hasn't decided his Olympic plans and won't for some time. But the clarification seemed to fall on deaf ears. The front page of Tuesday's Belfast Telegraph blared, "Rory: I feel more British than Irish." The News Letter, another national broadsheet, went with: "McIlroy defends national identity." The enterprising Irish Daily Star spoke with McIlroy's ex-girlfriend, Holly Sweeney, resulting in the bizarre headline: "I always knew Rory was British."
Here's the thing, though: It's not 1982 anymore. Northern Ireland has moved on from its tumultuous past; its younger generations don't even remember it. McIlroy doesn't need to be the next Barry McGuigan, nor does he want to be. McIlroy comes from a mixed background. He is Catholic, but he grew up in a predominantly Protestant neighborhood and became a star at Holywood Golf Club, a historically Protestant club. In his professional career, he has continued to straddle the cultural divide. After his win at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, someone tossed him the tricolored Irish flag. The camera momentarily cut away. When it returned to McIlroy, the flag had vanished.
I just happen to be in McIlroy's hometown this week, on a different assignment. A local club soccer team, the Bangor Rangers, is staying at my hotel, and on Monday night I met three of the players: Andy Railes and Dan McCracken, both 26 and from up the road in Bangor, and Rabb McKee, 36, of Belfast. They're all Protestants, and if forced to choose a side, they all said they would play for Great Britain. They also said that they don't care where McIlroy's loyalty ultimately lies.
"There shouldn't even be a story written on it — it's that irrelevant," said McCracken, who, when he's not traveling with the Rangers, is a classroom assistant. "It's just like in rugby. There's the Ulster rugby team, which is perceived to be a Protestant team. But the fans, the players, they don't give a s—. The vast majority don't care about that stuff anymore."
Railes, a self-described golf nut who's a member at Bangor Golf Club and whose father plays at Holywood, said that the same goes for the country's elite golfers. They can "appeal to the masses," he said, because Northern Irish sports fans are generally apathetic about which flag their golfers play under.
McKee went on to allege that McIlroy's professed "British-ness" might be motivated more by money than political pride. "I think it's because when you represent Britain in the Olympics — if you win something for Britain, it's far, far bigger than if you win for Ireland," he said. "McIlroy would get far more sponsorships, TV coverage, everything else by representing Britain."
Conversely, the group agreed that McIlroy's countryman, Graeme McDowell, would be wise to suit up for Ireland in 2016 (assuming, of course, he qualifies). "If he plays on the same G.B. squad as McIlroy, he's going to be picking up the scraps," McKee said. "If he plays for Ireland, he's going to be their poster boy. He can make money out of it."
McDowell, who was raised Protestant but whose mother is Catholic, told me in an interview a couple of years ago that he, like McIlroy, has never felt the need to pick sides. "I wasn't brought up with that us-against-them kind of vibe," he said. "I was very sheltered from it all." But when it comes to golf, he added, his allegiance does lean toward Ireland, a result of his playing junior golf for the Golfing Union of Ireland.
"We only have one team in Ireland; there's no North and South," McDowell said. "So I grew up wanting to wear the Irish blazer — the green and the gold. It didn't matter to me what religion I was, or what religion my teammates were. I wanted to play golf for Ireland. To me, though, sport has no religious boundaries. It has no political boundaries. Sport is just sport."
Back at my hotel, as the Rangers downed a final pint before retiring for the night (they had a game against Luxembourg on Tuesday, but cut them some slack — they're just amateurs), the conversation turned to Barry McGuigan.
"He was a hero," McKee began.
"Yeah, he was certainly a hero to me," Railes interjected. "Barry McGuigan fought in white because he didn't want to be on either side of the divide."
"I think McIlroy's pretty similar to that," McCracken said.
"No doubt," Railes said, as he pulled on a cigarette. "I think McIlroy is dead on that. I think he doesn't want to be seen as British or Irish. Rory McIlroy would just want to be seen as Northern Irish."