It has been a while since John “Blondie” Carroll was lacing up his boots in a Cork Celtic dressing room. Yet his years in a team environment, as well as a long-serving national golf selector, have made him an ideal fit as the Golfing Union of Ireland’s new senior team captain.
The Corkman, who since the end of his footballing playing days alongside the likes of Bobby Tambling, Alfie Hale and, for a while, George Best, in the League of Ireland, has represented Bandon Golf Club on amateur’s golf’s national stage, being capped as a senior international in 2000 and helping his club to two all Ireland victories, the Irish Mixed Foursomes in 2002 and the Irish Senior Cup in 2010.
As a selector, Carroll, 69, served three Irish team captains, most recently Tony Goode, contributing to a remarkable run of success which has brought four Home International crowns in a row, as well as a historic first medal at the World Amateur Team Championships.
Now he has taken the helm himself for a three-year term, which starts in earnest today at the South African Stroke Play Championship at Pecanwood Golf Club near Pretoria.
Along with national team coach Neil Manchip, Carroll, from Glasheen in Cork city, will help steer an eight-man team through the first of back-to-back championships in South Africa, the early-season tour also taking in next week’s African Amateur Championship at Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg.
“I had been an Irish selector for nine years so I felt it was time to apply having served under three captains.
“We’ve had very good players and had some great success over the last few years, with the four Home International wins in a row and winning a bronze medal at the Eisenhower Trophy for the first time ever, two years ago.
“So I know a lot of the players, the fact that I’ve been there before over the last number of years, it’s certainly a big help.
“A lot of those players have turned pro but we’ve got a lot of very good new lads coming through now.
“We had a day out at Carton House with the full squad a few weeks ago, save for a couple of lads who were sick, and had Padraig Harrington come in on the evening for two hours to talk to them, which was very good. It was a great day.”
Carroll’s familiarity with the GUI, it’s high performance programme and the players ensures some continuity for the Irish team and its winning formula.
“It’s more or less the same as what served the previous three captains, really. They were all different in their own way but at the end of the day, the objective has remained the same, to be successful.
“The best incentive is to maintain the success we’ve had and even improve on it.”
The Corkman has taken on the demanding yet voluntary role in a landmark year for the GUI as it prepares to help stage the 2018 World Amateur Team Championships for both men, The Eisenhower Trophy, and women, the Espirito Santo Trophy, at Carton House in September.
“It’s a big year with the Eisenhower at Carton House and the Europeans in Berlin before that as well as the Home Internationals, being staged this year in north Wales at Conwy Golf Club.
“But first of all, we’re kicking off in South Africa, with eight players heading down there with Neil Manchip, the national coach, who has a great relationship with the players and vice versa.
“They’re all very good players, doing well on the WAGA ranking list, and they are all hard workers, on and off the course.”
Carroll’s love affair with golf started at the age of 20 but back then football always came first.
“When I was playing in the 1960s and 70s, they were great years for the game in Cork,” he said. “It was a winter game then and on those pitches it was hard going. Now that they play from March to November they have the chance of better pitches. And it’s great to see City doing so well last season.”
Mention the midfielder’s name to League of Ireland followers of a certain vintage and they rhapsodise “that goal”.
“The one in the FAI Cup final against Shamrock Rovers in 1969,” Carroll said. “I hit it from 25 yards out and we went 1-0 up. We were very close to winning (against the odds) but they equalised a couple of minutes from time and we were well beaten in the replay.”
Carroll would taste success with Celtic’s only league title in 1973-74.
“We had a very good team and a few players came in that year. Bobby Tambling (a former Chelsea and England striker) had come in the year before and that year they brought in Alfie Hale and Ben Hannigan and those very good players made a difference alongside a lot of local lads. It was good times.
Golf provides an opportunity for the Celtic players to get together with Carroll organising an annual round for around 20 former team-mates.
When he was a player, golf was only a part-time interest for Carroll, to keep him ticking over during the summer months of the off-season.
It was this newspaper’s former soccer writer Bill George who should get some credit for making Carroll’s allegiance to golf all the stronger, as the Irish team captain explained.
“We’re neighbours for a long time and played a bit of golf together over the years. One day, back in 1977, I believe, I was playing a match, an evening game at Turner’s Cross and chatting afterwards to Billy he said ‘do you fancy taking a spin to Thurles for the golf?’
He was covering the Cups and Shields as the golf correspondent was on holidays. So off we went, Bandon won and Billy was invited in by the club captain and president. He said he wouldn’t, he had a friend with him and they said bring him so I went in as well.
During the evening, Billy tells the president of the club that I wanted to join Bandon. ‘No problem, send a cheque for £45 and you’re a member’ the president said. And that’s how it started.
“I had no intention of joining a club but I was finishing up playing soccer and Billy got me joined before I had intended joining. Forty years later, I’m still there.”
Here, there and everywhere. Carroll’s new role means an itinerary taking the Irish team all over Europe and beyond.
“It’s a full-on role, travelling every three or four weeks once the season starts properly at the West of Ireland on Easter weekend.
The next couple of weeks in South Africa, though, is a great way to get things up and running at the start of the year, some warm-weather golf with good practice facilities.
“It should be a good two weeks. And a hectic three years.”
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