What caught my eye about Rory McIlroy on Sunday was not how he dissected Congressional and the field for an eight-stroke win in a 16-under par demolition at the U.S. Open.
It was a moment that happened shortly after the tournament was over. One that you could only see on TV for a fraction of a second. A jubilant fan tossed the Irish tricolor — green, white and orange — onto McIlroy as he made his way from the 18th green to the scorer’s tent, ostensibly so he could celebrate with it.
It was only a flag, but it may as well have been a stick of dynamite if interpreted the wrong way by the wrong people.
While it would have been fine for someone to drape Padraig Harrington in the Irish flag, doing so with McIlroy is a far more sensitive issue since he’s from Northern Ireland, that curious piece of land that is geographically connected to the Irish Republic but politically connected to the United Kingdom. In past decades, it might have been possible for something as innocuous as McIlroy holding that flag to trigger an unintended but violent reaction involving people whom he’s never even met.
By the time McIlroy was being awarded the championship trophy, the donated tricolor had disappeared and his dad had the “Red Hand Flag” of Northern Ireland draped over his shoulder. Though still a symbol of Unionism (i.e. pro-British) in many eyes, it suggests far more of a middle ground than if he had been celebrating with the Union Jack, and in this case is likely just meant as a representation of the tiny, six-county region in which McIlroy was born and raised rather than proclaiming an allegiance to the crown. Regardless of what his feelings about the matter of Northern Ireland’s relationship to the island as a whole are, not parading around with the tricolor was probably a wise decision due to the potential for awkwardness it could create. (As Michael Jordan once said when asked to endorse a Democratic candidate, “Republicans buy Nikes too.” Though very, very trivial in comparison, it’s an appropriate approach to take in this case).
At the age of 22 now, McIlroy was just nine when when the Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to the violence between Catholic and Protestant sects in Northern Ireland. He’s part of the first generation from there in decades to not know bombings as a way of life from start to finish. I honestly have no clue whether he’s Catholic or Protestant, and don’t mind keeping it that way. He’s just a damn good golfer that gives a place that’s had a lot to mourn over the years a lot to celebrate. He’s also still young enough where he’ll have a chance to keep that celebration going for years to come — and potentially good enough that when Northern Ireland is mentioned, the first thing we’ll think of is “home of the world’s best golfer.”