Istanbul, Medinah, the Nou Camp, the Crucible. All sites of some of sport’s greatest ever comebacks. Add Hankley Common to that illustrious list of famous venues after Ireland came from the depths of despair to win the 2021 Home Internationals.
John ‘Blondie’ Carroll’s charges produced a sensational comeback to win the Raymond Trophy for the first time since 2017 after they pipped Scotland to the title by half a point in a dramatic conclusion which saw them come from nowhere to snatch a championship winning half point with England.
The 2022 Home Internationals – now the Women’s and Men’s Home Internationals – start on Wednesday in Ballyliffin with a new mixed format set to be introduced for the week.
In a historical first, teams from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – made up of 16 players (seven women and nine men) – will compete for success in the matches played across three days.
Over 18 holes, each match consists of seven foursomes games (three women and four men) and 14 singles games (six women and eight men). Team positions will be determined by the highest number of match points.
That change in format means that the Boys in Green don’t necessarily get to defend the title they won so dramatically last year but it could be argued that the legacy of that win has only been further cemented in history.
Entering the final day last year high in confidence having overcome both Scotland and Wales, Ireland needed just a point against a tough English side, who were seeking to secure three Home International titles in a row.
In the end it was Galway’s Liam Nolan who earned the crucial point with a 1UP win over Callan Barrow in sensational circumstances to send his teammates into raptures after the Englishman saw a 12-foot birdie putt to hand Scotland the title slip by the hole.
“It was a weird lunch, we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” said Nolan. We just said we would go out and try and win as many points as possible and then when it came down to my match I had no idea what was going on.
“Callan ended up hitting first on 18 and rips this driver 340 down the middle but all the English lads started cheering in like a sarcastic way and I thought they were walking the matches and then I hit a really good one too.
“All the lads were up the fairway except for Peter O’Keeffe and he just goes ‘unreal Liam come on’ so I thought maybe my match was important so I knuckled down and thought something could happen,” added the NUIG student who had knocked a 20-footer stone dead for par.
“My whole mindset was to get the pace right if it drops it drops and then when he missed it was a relief. Definitely a nice win especially with that group of lads, it was my first time playing Homes so I have a great taste for it now.
“To win it like that was unbelievable, it’s one of those things that only happens in sport.”
The morning foursomes matches did not go to plan as Ireland failed to win any ties, taking just two half points as England entered the afternoon session with a seemingly unassailable 4-1 lead but Carroll and co weren’t for panicking and produced a sensational rally winning 6.5 points out of ten.
The departing Irish captain ‘Blondie’ Carroll had been a selector for the four-in-a-row victory in 2017 which was unprecedented for Irish golf at the time and he was delighted to end four years of hurt particularly after the disappointment in Lahinch in 2019.
“It was a brilliant week. We had at least four or five debutants which was great. It’s a completely different level of golf playing at international level but they all acquitted themselves well and it was a fantastic week,” acknowledged the former Cork Celtic footballer whose speech at 4-1 down was crucial in instilling belief in his team.
“It couldn’t have turned out any better the way we won it, the final putt on the final green. Having lost the foursomes to England 4-1 that morning we needed 6.5 out of ten singles to edge it.
“All I said to the players and I spoke to everyone individually was that it’s up to each of you to win your own game. Don’t think about who is playing behind you or in front of you, concentrate and win your own match and if we win enough we win it, if not, so be it.
“Every half point is vital, which turned out to be the case.
“Fair play to the lads they played great golf, just some absolutely fantastic golf. None more so than Rob Moran in the top match when he got a half.
“He had seven birdies on the front nine and he was only 1UP. Superb golf, I didn’t see it all because I was walking around the course and it was such a big golf course trying to get from A to B and watch every player.
“He was two down with three to play but birdied two of the last three to get back level. A crucial half point at the end of the day.
“Liam Nolan got a great half point in the final match on 18. I think Hugh Foley won by one hole so it was very exciting stuff. A fantastic way to end four years of captaincy.
“I know how good the players are and they are all great players they wouldn’t be on the team if they weren’t. I believed in the players I picked and it turned out great in the end,” he added.
Castle’s Rob Moran went unbeaten all week and was undoubtedly one of the standout players, including a superbly earned half point against English star John Gough in the top match. Moran birdied two of the last three holes to snatch a share of the spoils and his grit and determination set the tone for the day.
“It’s always nice. Being out first it was nice to lead the way and win some matches, at the end of the week it’s a team thing so every half point or point matters so I was delighted to put some points on the board.
“Everyone was just buzzing and delighted. Golf is such an invdividual sport so to play as a team is great we don’t get it too often but to go and win the Homes with the lads was unbelievable, there was a great buzz from everyone.
“Only three lads had played Homes before so it was a new experience for a lot of lads which made it even better. For it to be so close made it that bit more special.
“It was pretty intense a lot worse watching it than playing it!”
After Moran dug deep to keep green hopes alive, Laytown&Bettystown’s Alex Maguire was beaten 2UP by Jack Dyer and Peter O’Keeffe was thumped 7&5 by Olly Huggins. TJ Ford and Jack McDonell secured crucial points while Alan Fahy was beaten, but it was Hugh Foley who really put the cat amongst the pigeons after Caolan Rafferty and Matt McClean won by large margins in the anchor matches.
“John is such a nice and genuine man and it being his last year we wanted to go out there and give it everything to make sure he was up there with the trophy at the end. Everyone was delighted to see him holding the trophy, there was no panic from him after the foursomes at all,” said Foley who won a crucial point over Sam Bairstow on the 18th.
Royal Dublin’s Foley is arguably the most in form player in Ballyliffin this week having become the first player since Darren Clarke in 1990 to win both the North and South of Ireland championships in the same season a fortnight ago.
The 25-year-old played a key role on the final day last year and his form this week will be pivotal if Ireland are to come up trumps in Donegal.
“I wouldn’t say we were favourites by any means, England were very strong favourites last year. The morning foursomes went crap we got stuffed and we were a bit deflated but not too bad, when you go into singles everybody wants to win anyway and it was that sort of mood you could see lads were focused on winning their own match.
“I find that in a team that winning the morning foursomes can make the other team come back with the tails up in the singles and anyone can win over 18 holes so that’s what happened to us.
“There were live scoreboards every four holes so it was great fun looking up and seeing green, green, green it was gas. I had a really tough match against Sam Bairstow and that was tight I didn’t make a bogey and couldn’t afford to.
“I held a four-footer to win and I didn’t know it was important until I heard Rob Moran shouting and celebrating so I knew then it meant something.
“We just needed Liam Nolan to bring it home and we all watched 18 playing out. It was tense trying to figure out scores and points difference. Callan missed it and the celebrations after there was great craic after.”
Matthew McClean was one of the wounded players from the 2019 edition in Lahinch where Ireland finished third in the group with one win from three matches including a 10-5 drubbing at the hands of eventual winners England.
“Lahinch was my first experience so I was going into Lahinch with no expectation of what it was so. The England team we played in Lahinch was seriously good I think ten of the eleven turned pro the next day.
“The expectations for me dropped going into last year but we went in with the idea that we could win. Obviously England were big favourites,” explained the Malone native.
“It would have been nice to have won the one in Ireland but to win the way we did was class, things just about went our way.
“You have to tell yourself if you won 4-1 in the morning you still would have been telling yourself you need another four points from the singles so probably had to look at it that way.
“I think being so far behind took a lot of pressure off us so everyone had to go out and just try play as well as possible and see the result at the end. I don’t think we thought it was over but it relaxed our expectations,” added McClean who beat Zachary Chegwidden 6&5.
“Liam’s match was funny it’s one of those you don’t want to watch, you want the ability to do something about it to make it less nervous. Playing would have been more enjoyable than watching.
“It was weird because that was the only match really from an early stage, me and Caolan were the last two out and a lot of us had big wins. So there was only really TJ, Hugh and Liam that were the real tight ones but Liam’s was the crucial one.
“I was as tight and as nervous as I’ve ever been and I was only watching.
“The Scottish team was at the back of the green and we were at the side and then we ran straight on, it was unreal to be there really,” said the Portrush Scratch Cup winner.
Caolan Rafferty was one of the experienced campaigners on the team at 28 having played on the 2017 and 2019 teams and after another consistent season where he came close in the East he will be looking for a less stressful win this time around.
“It was unbelievable, the atmosphere we were a new enough bunch of lads and it was great. A good few lads made their debuts on one of the best courses we ever played and to go down the way it did was absolutely unbelievable.
“The lads all week stood up to the plate and performed superbly well.
“The situation wasn’t ideal. In Conwy we had a similar scenario that went against us and Peter and I were the only two that played that year and we were thinking here we go again. It was a putt you would expect Callan to make but I suppose there was pressure on him and luckily enough he didn’t make it.”
“We expected the worst but when it didn’t go in the buzz was unbelievable,” he laughed.
Raff played what has become known as the ‘Collie Campbell’ role. In the absence of the two-time Irish Amateur Open winner – who is part of the squad this week – the Dundalk star anchored the singles matches and he repaid Blondie’s faith in emphatic fashion with a thumping 8&7 win over former Amateur champion Laird Shepherd.
“We always used to call it the Collie Campbell role, he was always last on the singles sheet when I got my first cap and I never really understood why, but John said it to me would I mind going out last and that I was the new Collie Campbell.
“Yeah I took that role and went with it, didn’t pay off the first day, took a bit of a beating the first day with Scotland but it paid off the rest and I played nicely winning two matches in singles.
“Absolutely delighted for John Carroll, someone I’ve known for a long time and we were all chuffed to win it for him and to see him up there giving the speech afterwards, it was some way to bow out.”
This year’s squad is all change with TJ Ford, West of Ireland champion Alan Fahy, East of Ireland winner and Amateur semi-finalist Alex Maguire, Marc Boucher and Jack McDonnell all left out while Naas man Rob Brazill and Colm Campbell return to the fold for the first time since 2019 while Kilkenny’s Mark Power makes his debut in the competition.
A switch to the mixed format might just favour the Irish again with Aideen Walsh, Kate Lanigan, Sara Byrne, Anna Foster and Aine Donegan joining Curtis Cup star Lauren Walsh and the all conquering Beth Coulter who won both the Irish Women and Girls Close titles this summer.
The Men and Women in green will face Scotland in the opening match of the championship.