McIlroy recently told the BBC that (via the National Post):
I just think being from where we’re from, we’re placed in a very difficult position, I feel Northern Irish and obviously being from Northern Ireland you have a connection to Ireland and a connection to the U.K.
Unlike most international competitions, the Olympics does not allow separate teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They all compete as Great Britain.
That is where the dilemma is for McIlroy.
As probably the most famous athlete ever from the small area, one can certainly understand why McIlroy would not want to offend his Irish or his Great British fans.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, McIlroy is both a citizen of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
As someone who is likely to get a medal in those games, there would be a great deal of national pride for whatever country he chooses to represent.
As a young man—who just happens to be the best golfer on the planet right now—McIlroy really does not want to wade into the court of public opinion.
The sport, however, and the Olympics itself, need McIlroy to be front and center in Rio.
After being dropped as an Olympic sport after 1924, golf becomes a medal event again this time around.
There is no denying that the Olympics bring great exposure for sports to an audience that normally would not watch.
Long considered a recreational activity for the elite, a fair chunk of people do not consider golfers to be athletes.
The Olympics will change that.
Besides giving massive exposure to a game that needs it outside of the PGA Tour, it will give fans who normally would not watch golf a reason to root for their country.
Which country should McIlroy play for?
Not only would McIlroy’s absence be felt in Ireland and the United Kingdom, it would become one of the major storylines going into the Olympics.
As golf tries to establish itself as a truly international game to the masses, this is a distraction that the organizers in Rio and the game of golf do not need.
Whichever country he chooses not to represent should issue an immediate statement of support wishing him well—basically letting him off the hook.
McIlroy has a chance to grow the game globally, even on a larger scale than Tiger Woods. He is as important to international golf today as Gary Player was two generations ago.
McIlroy is smart to realize he is really in a no-win situation. Being forced to make a choice will certainly disappoint the country he does not choose.
The bigger mistake, however, would be not to play at all.
After waiting 92 years for golf to become an Olympic sport again, injury should be the only excuse a player has to miss it.
As with a lot of decisions in adult life, McIlroy faces one here that is not easy.
Hopefully those around him help him to make the right one.