Imagine how confused American golf fans were during Rory McIlroy's long stroll into history a couple of weekends ago. At some point during the third round, somebody figured out that there was a good chance that the U.S. Open trophy would wind up in Northern Ireland for the second year in a row. Needless to say, this led to a discussion of the odds of a country of a million and a half people producingnot just two U.S. Open champions, but two such champions in consecutive years. And this, of course, led to a lively chat about the pubs being kept open in Ireland to celebrate McIlroy's imminent victory. There were several unpaid product placements for a certain brewery based in St. James Gate, Dublin. At another point, a commentator made reference to some characteristic of McIlroy's as being quintessentially Irish. I wish I could remember what particular virtue was ascribed to the young man's nationality, although I'm happy to report that it had nothing to do with consumption of that certain brewery's most-famous product. I'd remember that. You're following this so far, are you? Of course you are. You're reading an Irish-American newspaper, after all! But if you were an average golf fan in an average community in average America, a few questions very likely would come to mind. Such as: Since when is Northern Ireland a country? Is this young man Irish, or Northern Irish, or British? Does the young man speak English, or is he simply doing a bad impression of David Feherty? Why would people in Dublin celebrate a victory by a guy from near Belfast? What the hell have these people been fighting about all these years if they're all Irish anyhow? Good questions, those. The more-sophisticated golf fans might even have taken note of references to Padraig Harrington, the three-time major champion born in the Republic of Ireland, as one of McIlroy's fellow Irishmen. "Hold on a minute," Mr. or Ms. Sophisticate might have said, "If you call somebody from Northern Ireland an Irishman, isn't that something like calling a guy from Alabama a Yankee?" Another good question. That's why you have to love global sports. They manage to deal with issues of identity and citizenship without resorting to violence. (Except, of course, for ice hockey.) Big think historians in the 22nd Century certainly will take note of how many times Graeme McDowell, last year's U.S. Open champ, and the young Mr. McIlory were identified as Irish, not as, er, British or even as Northern Irish. They'll also note that these references created no controversy, at least not on this side of the water. In fact, things went pretty smoothly in Belfast as well. Peter Weir, the Democratic Unionist who represents McIlroy's home town in the Northern Ireland Assembly, gave a fine tribute to the young champion without dwelling on matters of the soul. So did several other members of Stormont. Karen McKevitt, an SDLP politician, cleverly christened McIlroy as Northern Ireland's own "Celtic Tiger." When was the last time anybody in Stormont made a positive reference to a Celt? Of course, one can only hope that the new Celtic Tiger has a little more staying power than the last one. If not, well, young Mr. McIlroy can always apply for a bailout from Ireland's friends in Berlin and Paris. Maybe he'll get an interest rate in the low double digits because he's so gosh-darn cute. Yes, the world of sports is wide indeed and very different than it was just a few years ago. Today Rory McIlroy is Irish. Yesterday he surely would have been described as British. If you don't believe me, just ask W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Harris, and Seamus Heaney, all of whom have been identified as British - especially by envious Brits. Here's another sign of changing times. How often did you hear mention of McIlroy's religion? I can't recall a single reference, nor do I recall much discussion of whether McDowell is Catholic or Protestant. Maybe this sort of thing is discussed in east Belfast, or on the Falls Road, but not over here. That's a good thing. With any luck, American golf fans have figured out by now that Northern Ireland is Irish, but not part of the Irish Republic, within the boundaries of the United Kingdom, but not exactly British, more of a province than a country, but one with its own flag and its own home rule legislature. And maybe they have even figured out why Rory sounds like Graeme, who sounds like David, who doesn't really sound like Padraig but who appears to have the same skewed sense of humor. They're all from the same bloody island, that's why. They're all Irish anyhow!