Golf nourishes itself with low-hanging narratives, those saccharine, feel-good tales about lives redeemed or neighborhoods rejuvenated thanks to the royal and ancient game. Stories of golf as a power for good often hold a seed of truth that eventually reaps an acre of corn. Eighty-seven days from now, folks who peddle this kind of claptrap will have a field day as the 148th Open Championship kicks off at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
The parables are so predictable that they write themselves long before a single shot is struck.
Golf as a unifying force in a bitterly divided land.
Major-winning players from differing religious traditions in whose success warring neighbors found common cause.
The mother of all majors as a richly deserved reward for the good people of this benighted little place who moved beyond conflict and toward reconciliation.
It’s an optimistic yarn as condescending as it is contrived.
Since the intersection of golf and politics is usually fraught terrain, a redemptive slant on things has obvious appeal. With the Open cast as a post-conflict milestone, there’s no need to untangle the internecine threads of Northern Irish politics. Focus on the future, not on the past! And if you wouldn’t mind ignoring the present as well that would be super helpful, because it ain’t ideal for marketing purposes.
It seems ordained that the Open will be a success. It will be the largest sporting event ever held on either side of the border in Ireland. Tickets sold out last year, and the stunning Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush is superior to most other venues on the Open rota. Such a rousing triumph may make it necessary to explain why the tournament hasn’t visited here since 1951. Hence the need to present Northern Ireland today as becalmed, forward-thinking and free of the shackles of its past.
None of which is entirely true.
It has been two decades since the Good Friday Agreement nominally ended the 30-year conflict euphemistically known as “the Troubles.” Ours was a grubby, low-intensity war characterized more by doorstep shootings than artillery fire. It claimed more than 3,500 lives, a total that may seem relatively insignificant unless your loved ones number among them. The pace at which Northern Ireland fills its body bags has mercifully slowed, but it has not completely halted.
The most recent victim was Lyra McKee. She was a 29-year-old journalist killed last week when a gunman from an IRA splinter group fired on police lines during a riot in the city of Derry, 35 miles west of Royal Portrush.
I didn’t know McKee, save a long-ago exchange of emails. Friends of mine did and considered her a formidable voice among her “ceasefire babies” peers. “We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined not to witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace,” McKee once wrote. “The spoils never seemed to reach us.”
The Open Championship is a spoil, of sorts. Just as the Claret Jug will be held aloft by the champion golfer of the year, the Open itself will be brandished as a symbol of normalcy and progress by the very politicians whose stone-age squabbles have left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for years, whose intransigence and bigotry sent generations of Lyra McKees fleeing for airports and ferry terminals.
Self-congratulatory back-slapping by elected blowhards is so familiar a part of professional golf that it won’t really register with those who travel to Portrush. But it will be a galling spectacle for the people who must continue to live with increasing tribal tensions, sporadic violence and diminishing opportunities long after the Open caravan leaves town.
There are plenty of people who deserve plaudits for bringing the Open to Northern Ireland. Like Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, whose successes and advocacy were key. And Wilma Erskine, the secretary of Royal Portrush, who fought this noble battle for more years than she cares to count. They ought to receive their due in July.
But the Open shouldn’t be a masquerade ball that presents Northern Irish society as something it is not. Much has undeniably improved in the 25 years since I emigrated, but not even the Open can obscure the melancholy reality that Northern Ireland remains a society hostage to those who are, in the memorable words of Belfast songwriter Paul Brady, “still trying to carve tomorrow from a tombstone.” Gwk