Rory McIlroy shouldn’t be criticized for missing this year’s Irish Open. The former world No. 1 has done his bit for Ireland’s national championship and deserves to be cut some slack.
McIlroy has decided to skip this year’s championship at Lahinch to try to focus on winning the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in his own backyard. The game’s oldest championship returns to Northern Ireland for only the second time, 68 years after England’s Max Faulkner won the 1951 Open Championship over the Dunluce links, the only time the championship has been held off mainland Britain.
To say McIlroy winning his fifth major and second Open Championship over a course in his homeland is a big deal would be an understatement.
It would be huge.
The problem for Rory is that the Irish Open is the first of a run of three tournaments that includes the Scottish Open and the Open Championship. It’s beyond unreasonable to expect McIlroy to play three in a row, especially when The Open is the most important of the trifecta. He could be burned out by the time he gets to Royal Portrush if he plays the Irish and the Scottish. Something had to give, and since he wants to play his way into The Open, the Irish Open loses out.
“If I was to play the Irish Open, the Open Championship would be my third event in a row,” McIlroy told the BBC. “For me, that’s not the best way to prepare for what could be the biggest event of my life.”
McIlroy also told the BBC that lifting the old claret jug at Royal Portrush would be bigger than completing the career grand slam by winning this year’s Masters. The 29-year-old will have a distinct advantage heading into the final major of 2019.
Royal Portrush is only 63 miles from McIlroy’s home club Holywood on the outskirts of Belfast. McIlroy has played Royal Portrush many times since he was a young boy. He set a course record with a 61 in qualifying for the 2005 North of Ireland Championship.
McIlroy shouldn’t feel guilty about skipping Ireland’s national championship this year. He’s done his bit along with other major Irish stars like Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell to put the Irish Open back on the map after years as a second-rate event with B list casts. Rory has played in every Irish Open since he turned pro in 2008. He also played in the 2005 Irish Open as an amateur. He’s hosted the last four tournaments through his Rory Foundation. There’s a strong argument to say he’s the reason it is now a $7 million Rolex Series event with Dubai Duty Free acting as sponsor. He even managed to win the 2016 event at the K Club despite the added responsibilities of acting as host.
It’s not as if Irish golf fans won’t get to see Rory play on the Emerald Isle this year.
“The people of Ireland are still going to see me playing golf because I’m going to play the Open Championship, and I’m sure a lot of people will travel from down south to see me play.”
The other downside of Rory not taking part in the Irish Open is that it’s a blow to Paul McGinley in his first year as host. McGinley was desperate for McIlroy to play Lahinch. Rory was desperate to play, too. He lobbied the European Tour to try to get the dates swapped with the Scottish Open, but Aberdeen Standard Investments, sponsors of the Scottish Open, wouldn’t give up the pre-Open Championship date.
Two huge national championships before the most important major for Europeans was always going to create schedule problems for players of Rory’s calibre, players focused on winning the tournaments that mean most to their place in golf history.
McIlroy’s had to make a painful decision for entirely understandable reasons. He shouldn’t be slammed for it.