Tuesday, 30 August 2011

In Praise Of Northern Irish Golf - The Director's Cut

The day after Rory McIlroy won the US Open I was asked to write a short piece for The Herald putting the achievement into the context of Northern Irish sport. Unfortunately there wasn't space to use the piece although it did appear in a more abbreviated form a couple of days later.
I thought it would be worth reprinting the (slightly) longer version. Darren Clarke had not won the Open when I wrote this so there was still more to come. At the same time this summer's Belfast riots were only days away too. So perhaps the piece's optimism is slightly overemphasised:

On Sunday night in the Holywood Golf club a familiar face sat amongst all the local golfers and fans who were cheering on their local hero. As Rory McIlroy was breaking records left, right and down the fairway on the other side of the Atlantic another local hero Gerry Armstong popped in to McIlroy’s home club to cheer the 22-year-old.
Armstrong, of course, wrote himself into his country’s sporting history when he scored the winning goal against Spain, a goal that took Northern Ireland through to the second round of the 1982 World Cup finals. Back then, though, Northern Ireland was a different country. It was just a year after the Hunger Strikes, 16 years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and seven years before McIlroy was even born. Armstrong grew up in west Belfast at a time when the city was, to paraphrase Northern Irish novelist Glenn Patterson, disgracing itself, with bombs and shootings and riots.
How far away that must have seemed on Sunday night. You could argue that McIlroy is one of the first generation of post-Troubles sportsmen and women from the province. Alongside his friend and fellow golfer Graeme McDowell and snooker’s Mark Allen, his successes (and failures) have been for the most part played out against a more settled political background than the sportsmen and women of Armstrong’s generation.
For the best part of 40 years sportsmen and women saw their sporting careers shaped and sometimes distorted by the political context of Northern Ireland. Death threats were common. Some sportsmen - Gaelic footballers and hurlers mostly - even lost their lives.
Neil Lennon, for one, knows all too well the way the toxins of sectarianism still seep poisonously into sport, but McIlroy’s story has been shaped by more traditional sporting storylines - that of a boy from a modest background who displays natural talent, twice finds himself in a position to win a major trophy only to throw it away and then, third time lucky, translates his remarkable skills into remarkable sporting success. It’s a story born in Holywood but one that could have been fashioned by Hollywood.
But what was particularly notable at the weekend for those of us who grew up in the north during the Troubles was the fact that they were never mentioned by those covering McIlroy’s US Open success. Thirty years ago it would have been impossible to avoid.
Last October seven large hexagonal basalt stones were sold in auction in West Sussex. Believed to be from the Giant's Causeway, the stones had for years been used to protect the Portrush golf club Rathmore - the home club of the previous US Open champion Graeme McDowell - from IRA car bombs. Maybe if you were looking for a symbol of how things have changed you could find it here. Northern Irish golf is no longer hunkered down behind huge rocks, it's going out and conquering the world (oh and winning the Ryder Cup more or less in the process).

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