It seems seriously unfair to struggling high-handicappers that sportsmen such as Michael Jordan, who have scaled the heights in their chosen sporting pursuit, can switch to golf with apparent ease. The thought struck me on meeting John Giles, whose book, “A Football Man: My Autobiography,” currently heads the Irish best-sellers list.
Though he recently celebrated his 70th birthday, his many admirers are pleased that Giles is continuing with RTE Television as the country’s leading soccer pundit. But it came as a jolt to this scribe to find him almost dismissive of having once played off a 5 handicap. “I have never considered myself to be a good golfer,” he said, by way of compounding the hurt.
Then with a knowing smile, he acknowledged: “Sure, I can imagine club golfers throwing their eyes up to heaven at such talk. But having played football as a professional at the highest level, my approach to golf is pretty similar. That’s why I find the game so frustrating. Though it has given me some wonderful times, as far as I’m concerned, good golf is played by professionals, and I never succeed in hitting shots like a professional. That’s the only measurement that interests me.”
Irish sports fans of a certain age will never forget a November day at Dalymount Park, Dublin, in 1959, when Giles made a sensational soccer international debut by scoring the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Sweden. As for his other game, it was only on joining Leeds United as one of the finest young players in England at the start of the 1963-64 season, that he acquired a proper golfing technique. He was then 22.
Giles first applied club to ball six years earlier but seems undecided as to whether he has actually enjoyed the experience through the years.
“Golf has always been my impossible dream,” he explained at the Hollystown club in North Dublin, where a glass cabinet contained cups, medals and jerseys from a career encompassing 59 appearances for Ireland and 521 matches in the then Football League in England, with 114 goals to his credit. Through a close friendship with Hollystown’s owner, Oliver Barry, he was club captain in 2002.
“I was 16 when I went to Manchester United and Monday was the designated golf-day at Davyhulme Park, which wasn’t too long (6,250 yards off the back tees) to intimidate a beginner like me,” he said. “It was, in fact, the first time I had actually been on a golf course and with the other players, I came to look forward to it every week. With lunch thrown in, it became a bit of a treat. Using borrowed clubs and with a 14 handicap, I think, I played cack-handed, which I suppose had to do with earlier attempts at playing hurling as a kid in Dublin.”
Among the Manchester United players in the late 1950s, Giles talked of striker Albert Quixall as a keen golfer. So was Bill Foulkes and, of course, Bobby Charlton. The players he gravitated most towards, however, were fellow Irish internationals Noel Cantwell, Tony Dunne and Shay Brennan. Meanwhile, early deficiencies began to disappear after his move to Leeds.
This could be attributed to lessons from the legendary Hedley Muscroft, a tournament winner who was the resident professional at Roundhay Park, a nine-hole municipal course not far from Elland Road, the Leeds ground. “Don Revie (Leeds manager) was a keen player,” said Giles. “So were Norman Hunter and Paul Madeley. And Big Jack (Charlton) played a bit too, though he was always more keen on fishing.”
Giles went on: “I can’t speak for the other guys but the frustrating thing for me was that with match commitments, I never felt I had enough time to become a decent golfer. While the game certainly brings out the competitor in me, I don’t accept the notion of natural co-ordination being a particular help, because golf is not an athletic pursuit, in my opinion. I think of it as being more mechanical than instinctive, a difficult game at which I have had to work very hard to achieve any worthwhile degree of proficiency.”
From Leeds United, Giles joined West Brom as player-manager in 1975, which meant transferring his golf from the nine holes of Roundhay to the more salubrious surroundings of the Edgbaston club, with its classic, 18-hole layout designed by the celebrated English golf course architect Harry Colt. Now, 35 years on and with Birmingham still his home, he remains a member of Edgbaston, with a club handicap of eight which he claims greatly flatters his current game. He thinks 12 would be more realistic, though he hasn’t had the opportunity of putting in any cards.
His best-ever round, a 1-under-par 68, was carded in the Edgbaston club championship in 1989. “It was a 36-hole event and while I think I slipped to something like a 76 in the second round, I had done enough to win easily,” he said.
Given his recent milestone, I wondered if the dream of professional proficiency still persisted? “Of course,” he replied. “Perhaps if I dream enough, one day…” And we both smiled.