Rory McIlroy says being part of something that is bigger than himself and his sport is a great thing

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Rory McIlroy has admitted he was considering making Tokyo his one and only Olympics. Yet in just a few days those five rings have clearly worked their magic once more and now he has changed his thinking completely.

After a 66, McIlroy all but guaranteed that he will be at Le Golf National in three years time – and all the Games he qualifies for thereafter.

It is fair to say that McIlroy was, at best, indifferent to his sport’s 2016 reinclusion to the Olympic programme after a 112-year gap.

He made some disparaging remarks, pulled out using the Zika virus as the excuse and even though he was quick to congratulate Justin Rose on his gold, he explained to the Irish Independent that he “resented” the Olympics because “it suddenly put me in a position where I had to question who I am, here am I from, here do my loyalties lie and who am I going to play for?”

McIlroy elected for Ireland, but even in the last few weeks he has continued to wrestle with the conundrum. “I am not a very patriotic guy," he said at The Open. "I am doing it because I think it is the right thing to do.” Everything about his demeanour suggested this was a chore to be completed rather than a privilege to be enjoyed.

Fast forward 36 holes and 135 shots that leaves him on seven-under, just four off the lead held by American Xander Schauffele (63) and there is a gloriously fresh attitude.

“I didn’t know if this was going to be my only Olympics that I play or whatever and I’m already looking forward to Paris,” McIlroy said. “When your sport is in the Olympics, and you’re all a part of something that’s a bit bigger than yourself and your sport, and that’s a great thing.

“We’re staying in a hotel and the US basketball team are also there. We got a couple of German athletes. We were on the range and we heard that Ireland won the gold medal in the rowing.

“We’re trying to concentrate a lot on what you’re doing, but you’re also really interested in everything else that’s going on around you. So, I think that’s the very cool part about it. You’re competing in Olympics but 30 minutes down the road everyone else is competing as well. I think that’s the thing that, maybe not being in the Olympics last time, I didn’t understand…”

There is only one drawback for McIlroy – the restrictions that mean the players cannot go along to see other events. The 32-year-old’s preference might surprise a few.

“The one thing that’s on tonight that I would love to go and see is dressage,” McIlroy said. “It’s mesmerising and it’s on tonight at like 7.30pm. I’ll watch it on TV. I watch it once every few years, obviously and it’s really cool.”

The game of golf should celebrate McIlroy’s emotional U-turn, because when one of the superstars of the sport is bigging up the four-year spectacular then others will inevitably take note.

Only three of the world’s top 10 are in attendance (McIlroy is 15th), but that is not as bad as it sounds when one considers that world No 1 Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau only withdrew on the eve of the tournament because of positive Covid19 tests and that America is restricted to a maximum of four representatives. In truth, it is not too far off being maximum strength.

The issue of patriotism aside, McIlroy will be aware of the overflow of positivity he could produce in his profession with a win. Without a major in seven years, it would be an extreme irony if a gold medal put McIlroy’s march for history back on track. He is certainly playing well enough on the rain-softened layout of Kasumigaseki Country Club that suits him to the tee.

A birdie-eagle-birdie run from the sixth saw him hurtle up the leaderboard. "I played the par-fives better; played them in even par yesterday and three-under today,” McIlroy said. “That’s the difference. So yeah, it was good."

His Irish team-mate Shane Lowry is also on seven-under and so, too, is Paul Casey, the Team GB veteran with a hole still to finish on Saturday morning. It was another day when the lighting interrupted proceedings, with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama still with two holes remaining when play was called.

The Masters champion is on eight-under and thrilling the home nation, having stormed through his 16 holes in six-under. The Mexian Carlos Ortiz is Schauffele’s nearest pursuer in the clubhouse, just one behind after a 67.