One day Rory McIlroy was on top of the world, the next day he was caught in an identity crisis between two golfing nations.
”I was hoping that my success on the golf course would be the more popular topic of golfing conversation today,” McIlroy said in a letter he posted Monday on Twitter.
Not long after he beat the strongest leaderboard of the year in the BMW Championship, McIlroy found himself in the middle of a debate over which flag he might represent when golf returns to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, already with two major championships and a No. 1 ranking by a widening margin, grew up ”a proud product of Irish golf.” Because his country is part of the United Kingdom, he also is eligible to play for Britain.
Stirring the debate was an interview with The Daily Mail in which McIlroy said he feels a greater connection with the UK than with Ireland.
”What makes it such an awful position to be in is I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella,” he told the British newspaper. ”But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British and Irish.”
That led to speculation that McIlroy was laying the groundwork toward playing for Britain, and he quickly clarified his position, which remains on the fence.
”I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics,” McIlroy said. ”On a personal level, playing in the Olympics would be a huge honor. However, the games in Rio are still four years away and I certainly won’t be making any decisions with regards to participating any time soon.”
His next event is the Tour Championship, where McIlroy is the No. 1 seed going into the FedEx Cup finale. Any of the top five seeds — Tiger Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker are the others — could capture the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus by winning at East Lake.
As for the flag, what matters immediately to McIlroy is European blue at the end of the month in the Ryder Cup.
Beyond that, he already has become a global star.
All it took was four tournaments in five weeks for McIlroy to establish himself as the game’s dominant player, which has been missing in golf since Woods went astray following the 2009 season.
He won by a record eight shots in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, making him the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 with two majors. Then, he rallied from a three-shot deficit with a 67 on the final day at TPC Boston to capture the Deutsche Bank Championship. Six days later, he arrived at Crooked Stick, just north of Indianapolis, expecting nothing less than another trophy. He delivered a 67 on a final day that featured Woods, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Vijay Singh, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott in contention.
Woods used to talk about being able to draw on the experience of winning so much. That’s what McIlroy has going for him now.
”I feel like it’s just coming to me naturally,” McIlroy said Sunday. ”The more that you’re in that position, the more you’re able to do it. You feel more comfortable doing it. All these feelings that I had today, I’m used to because I just had them last week. And the feelings that I had last week, I still was used to them because I only had them a couple weeks ago.”
McIlroy paid his respects to Woods, his new BFF.
They have been inseparable in recent weeks, partly because their position in the FedEx Cup puts them in the same group for the opening rounds of these playoff events, though it goes beyond the golf course. One week, Woods was waiting in the back of the interview room as McIlroy finished up. Two weeks later, it was McIlroy who sat it the back of the room listening to Woods. They did a TV interview together after their opening round at Crooked Stick, then headed off to lunch together.
Woods raves about him, and even in defeat Sunday, he conceded that McIlroy was ”putting on a show out there.”
”He’s going out there and is up near the lead and posts a good number,” said Woods, who finished two shots behind McIlroy in Boston and three shots back in Indianapolis. ”He’s doing the things he needs to do. He’s feeling very confident about his game. Right now, he’s just really playing well, and he’s making a ton of putts.”
It’s the first time in his career that Woods has finished within three shots of the lead in consecutive events won by the same player. In the 14 tournaments they have both played this year, McIlroy has finished ahead in nine of them, including a 4-1 edge in wins.
McIlroy picked up his sixth career PGA Tour win, joining Woods (15) and Jack Nicklaus (8) as the only players since 1960 to win that many at age 23. McIlroy still has about eight months to go before turning 24. Better yet, he has four years to go before deciding which flag to carry at the Olympics.
For the moment, he belongs to the world.
”I receive huge support from both Irish and British sports fans alike and it is greatly appreciated,” McIlroy said in his letter. ”Likewise, I feel like I have a great affinity with American sports fans. … As an international sportsman, I am very lucky to be supported by people all over the world, many of who treat me as one of their own, no matter what their nationality, or indeed mine. This is the way sport should be.”