Rory McIlroy’s long and winding Olympic journey comes up just short

Rory McIlroy’s long and winding Olympic journey comes up just short

SMALL MARGINS: Ireland’s Rory McIlroy reacts to a missed putt in yesterday’s fourth round of the men’s individual stroke play at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games at Kasumigaseki Country Club, Saitama, Japan. Picture: Inpho/Morgan Treacy

It’s nine years since Rory McIlroy won the BMW Championship in Indiana and then told the world that he felt more British than Irish. Five years and one month since he really started to run rings around the idea of playing golf at the Olympics.

McIlroy doesn’t feel a connection to the Union Jack or the Tricolour. He couldn’t sing ‘Amhran na bhFiann’ or ‘God Save the Queen’. He has come out straight and declared emphatically that patriotism is just not his thing. He was comfortable with that. And then the Olympic question was asked and it became uncomfortable.

The questions. The criticisms. the hot takes.

Whatever way you cut it, it’s been a long and uncomfortable journey for him from there to here on the outskirts of Tokyo so it felt only appropriate that his first experience at the Games should be drawn out that bit more than normal by virtue of an unwieldy seven-way playoff for a bronze medal.

It may have ended with him falling short — CT Pan eventually joining champion Xander Schauffele and Rory Sabbatini on the podium — but this was a success in so many other, and maybe bigger, ways for the man from Holyrood who has always had a tendency to divide opinion regardless of his achievements.

Simply finding a way to compete here while staying true to himself and placating everyone else was success in itself. McIlroy wore the Team Ireland gear but he spoke about his desire to represent the game of golf itself as it leverages the Olympic Games and continues its exponential growth.

There are some who will always be irked by his refusal to engage with identity politics but you couldn’t argue with his commitment over the four days and the hustle he showed over here on a blindingly hot and humid Sunday in Japan. His final round was a mixture of excellence and sheer doggedness.

Four opening pars left him stalled in the blocks while others motored up the leaderboard. Hmm, you wondered. Then he rallied. With four birdies, a pair each sandwiching a dropped shot. A bogey at 15 seemed to cost him but then he birdied the 17th and kept himself alive. Again.

On he went, digging in when he had to. His tee shot on the opening playoff hole found sand but he pitched out and manufactured the par that kept his name in the drum for the next one. There was plenty of good golf in there too but this was punchy stuff from a man all too often accused of insufficient fight.

“I was 15-under and the guys (ahead) were only 17 so I still felt like I had a bit of a chance. I wasn’t too far behind and then the bogey at 15 just sort of… After that, for those last few holes it was about trying to fight for a medal. (Rory) Sabbatini had already come through there and when I birdied 17, to get it back to -15, I was thinking, ‘okay, try my hardest’.”

That it wasn’t enough is almost incidental.

McIlroy has, with this last week, left behind a frustrating chapter of his life that he never wanted in the first place and which has spanned close to a decade. He played a blinder, on the course and off it. He paused for an age earlier this week when asked for his favourite Olympic memory yet Paris 2024 has been mentioned giddily time and again.

The past is done with. Finally.

“Look, I’ve made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive and coming here, experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that’s going on, not just Olympic golf but the Olympics in general: that sort of Olympic spirit has definitely bitten me and I’m excited about how this week has turned out and excited for the future.”

McIlroy aside, there is the sense of a sport still trying to find its niche in the Olympic class. The Kasumigaseki Country Club made for a basic enough challenge for players whose toughest task may have been dealing with conditions so hot and humid that Mexico’s Abraham Ancer was walking the fairways with a wet towel over his head from the first. There was at least an element of drama at the end, not just in the bronze playoff won by CT Pan of Chinese Taipei, but in the way in which the USA’s Xander Scahuffele held off the charge of Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini who posted a 10-under 61 on the day that mattered most.

Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow take to the same fairways come Wednesday. McIlroy will be in Memphis by then, for the WGC Fed-Ex St Jude Invitational, the thorn that was for so long the Olympics once and for all removed from his side.

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