An event without spectators and lacking buzz will also be without a highly motivated McIlroy.
“I am not a very patriotic guy,” McIlroy said after the final round of The Open, where he finished well back of winner Collin Morikawa and completed a seventh consecutive year without adding to his four major championships.
“I am doing it because I think it is the right thing to do. I missed it last time, and for golf to be an Olympic sport, you need your best players there. I feel like I want to represent the game of golf more than anything else.”
If McIlroy seems less than fired up about representing Ireland, well, it’s complicated.
A native of Northern Ireland, McIlroy is quite aware of the centuries-long strife in his homeland that saw sides picked and wars fought. That it became an issue in sports might be tough to comprehend for outsiders, but it was very real for McIlroy, who in a 2012 interview with the Daily Mail said he identified as more British than Irish.
That posed a problem. As an amateur golfer, McIlroy played for all of Ireland. And yet, as a resident of Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, he’d be eligible for its Olympic team. He had a choice — and it was not an easy one.
“What makes it such an awful position to be in, as I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella,” he told the newspaper then. “But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British than Irish.
“Maybe it was the way I was brought up. I don’t know, but I have always felt more of a connection with the U.K. than with Ireland. And so I have to weigh that up against the fact that I’ve always played for Ireland. So it is tough. Whatever I do, I know my decision is going to upset some people, but I just hope the majority will understand.”
As time went by, McIlroy reconsidered, and ultimately decided it would be best for him to compete for Ireland — which he will do along with Shane Lowry (who is from the Republic) this week.
McIlroy skipped the 2016 Games because of Zika virus concerns in Brazil, but he has made this year’s Olympics a priority, even if it is not exactly where he would prefer to be.
“I don’t know if there is much to look forward to — it is obviously going to be a very different environment,” McIlroy said at The Open, noting he will be restricted to the golf course and his accommodations, like all the players. “I’m looking forward to getting another week’s golf in and trying to get my game in shape. There is not much else to do there, so 12 hours a day on the golf course, hopefully I get my game in a little better shape.”
McIlroy is honest, someone who might not always say what everyone wants to hear. And surely those who have worked to make golf part of the Olympics were hoping for better. Both times, in 2016 and now, players have either opted to skip the tournament or were forced out because of health issues.
Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, said earlier this year he would not take part. Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau, ranked first and sixth, respectively, are out because of positive COVID-19 tests. South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen elected not to play, as did Spain’s Sergio Garcia and Australia’s Adam Scott.
For McIlroy, the entire pandemic has left him searching for answers. He was No. 1 in the world as recently as 13 months ago, but he has dropped to 15th despite a victory in May at the Wells Fargo Championship.
McIlroy admitted that the lack of fans during the majority of 2020 and into this year has hurt him. While the fans have returned on the PGA Tour and in big numbers recently at The Open, there won’t any on site this week at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
“I keep saying that the good stuff is in there; I make enough birdies, but it is just about trying to avoid the mistakes,” he said. “Whether that is trying to be too aggressive when I put myself in bad positions or if that is just putting myself in bad positions to begin with, that is the next step in the progression.”
McIlroy still has plenty to play for in 2021, including a World Golf Championship event the week after the Olympics, the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup. Two years ago, coming off a disappointing missed cut in The Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, McIlroy rebounded to capture the FedEx Cup.
He undoubtedly has similar ideas this time. And perhaps by finding some form this week when it is least expected, he can not only help carry the Olympics but find some love for it as well.