Padraig Harrington's wife Caroline: 'Being called a WAG doesn't bother me'
Strike us down: Caroline Harrington looks good.
She marches into the café upstairs in Brown Thomas in high, high heels, a powder-blue jacket and winking jewels. Her shellacked nails in a matching baby blue are very long, like weapons. Blonde hair seems to cast rays of sunlight all about her. The word is handsome - jeans, designer Italian handbag, enormous glasses perched atop her head.
But what lies beneath this pristine surface? Layers of intelligence, decency and pure good sense, you might find.
Caroline is best known, and regularly described in the media as, the "devoted wife" of Padraig Harrington, the golf star and darling of the nation. Golf insiders say she is the driver of his success. People call her the "Lady MacBeth" of Irish sport, the quiet power behind the throne. They say she was "omnipresent" on that world stage he once conquered. "Her presence has been credited as having been parallel with his best years," one source says.
Caroline smiles a broad smile when I ask if her role has been more than meets the eye. "They [pro-golfers on tour] used to call me 'Ceefax', after the old Teletext channel, because I knew anything and everything there was to know about golf. So if anybody needed to know how they were doing in the standings, I always had the information to hand."
And these days, as Padraig competes on the PGA tour, "when he comes off the golf course, I'm the first person that he rings to talk about what has happened."
You better believe it when she says: "I'm very interested in golf."
Things about birdies and eagles fly from her gregarious stream of chatter, so as her glass of Coke and bowl of Minestrone arrive, I confess that she is talking to someone who has nil interest in golf, who thought a "tee time" was the time you sat down for tea and a sandwich. She laughs, and regards me, for just a moment, like a very unusual species. "I would say I am more interested in sport than Padraig is."
As someone with no tolerance for watching men playing around on pitches, I'd like to know what the draw of sport is for this woman. "I'm very competitive."
Caroline Harrington is also, I discover, "a real steak and chips kind of girl". She loves to watch Criminal Minds, a drama about America's sickest criminals, to unwind after a day with her two young sons. She does her grocery shopping in high heels - "I was born in high heels" - and gets her nails done every three weeks. She does Pilates most days. She has a passion for watching ice-hockey.
Her style icons are the parvenu TV host Cheryl Cole, and Donna from Suits. And for all her tomboy credentials, the oft-photographed belle can talk at length about her favourite designer labels - Peter Pilotto, Roland Mouret, Rocksanda Ilincic and Pinko - and her love of rooting around in Zara and Karen Millen.
Like her husband, and his caddy, she doesn't drink, and never has. "I don't need drink to give me courage. I'll go to a party, and I'll be first one on a dance floor, first one up to the karaoke machine."
And at 43, she has relaxed the rules. "Until I reached 40 I never went outside without my hair and make-up done. When I turned 40, I had this revelation. Who am I trying to please here? I'm only trying to please myself, really."
You learn pretty quickly that Caroline is a woman of unflinching self-assurance. Take the charge that she belongs to a category called WAGs. "They used to call us GWAGs," she laughs. "Golfer's wives and girlfriends… Do I think it's derogatory? It doesn't bother me, it doesn't affect me and I don't really think about it".
It may seem unsisterly that for much of two hours we talked about golf and her three-time Major-winning husband. But she had so very much to say. Her commitment to his career is cast-iron. It was a choice, not an outcome of their marriage. She believes: "It's very important as a sportsman, somebody that's so motivated and dedicated to what they're doing, to have somebody as invested in that behind the scenes. Equally motivated, equally dedicated."
Otherwise, she warns, "it's very difficult to marry the two worlds together" - family and pro-golf.
The daughter of Dermot, an insurance broker, and Mary, a "glamorous individual" who taught Caroline how to do her make-up when she was 15, she grew up in south county Dublin with her younger sister, Susie.
At school Caroline Gregan, as she was then, loved maths and physics. She played badminton, table tennis, athletics and (indifferently) golf. Her father, a table tennis player and coach, was once Ireland's all-Ireland pitch and putt champion. She grew up watching sports at his side - snooker, darts and golf. It was through her sporting father, and their local golf club at Stackstown, that she met Padraig.
Caroline, a juvenile member of Stackstown, found herself watching him in a junior tournament one summer's day in 1989. She had just turned 16. He was 18, and already well-known on the amateur circuit. They hardly talked.
She was invited out on a date, though not by Padraig. His friend Kitt Flood - older brother of Ronan, Padraig's long-standing caddy - took her to the cinema. "But Kitt was a bit of a player, I think he was probably dating about 12 other women at the time and that really wasn't working for me," smiles the blonde.
The next time she met Padraig, at her father's club match, he put his jacket on the ground for her to sit on. "So that was quite impressive… I thought that was very charming." Months later he phoned her up (with a friend beside him for "Dutch courage") and invited her to the Savoy cinema on O'Connell Street. They watched Road House with Patrick Swayze on a December night.
"He was a little bit quiet for me. But anyway, we went on another date." The sweethearts would go to the movies and to Flanagan's and Gallagher's to eat her favourite repast of steak, chips and onion rings.
Caroline doesn't hold back her appreciation for things big and perhaps blinging. The ring and matching earrings she wears today are encrusted with diamonds in the shape of an English rose - from Boodles, she says with pleasure.
And that Valentine's day, she recalls, "He bought me the biggest card I've ever seen in my entire life. I was like: 'OK. I like this guy.'"
In December 1997 she married a champion. Padraig, two years turned pro, and a qualified accountant to boot, had just won the World Cup of Golf for Ireland with Paul McGinley. The Yellow House pub beside the church where they were wed in Rathfarnham bore a banner with 'Congratulations Paul and Padraig on your World Cup Win!' Caroline and Padraig honeymooned in Barbados - "and I gave up work and travelled for seven years."
She had left behind her own career. At 24, with a degree in business, Caroline had been working as an insurance broker. Soon she was "living out of a suitcase", travelling Europe.
This she reports in such a breezy fashion as to blow away any question that there was pain involved in the sacrifice. Ever upbeat, she says she saw touring as "an amazing opportunity to see fantastic places". On Mondays they travelled, and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays she went sight-seeing, alone, or with a gang of golfers' wives and girlfriends.
But her primary interest was in her husband's career. On Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays she "walked the course" with him.
"Golf is a very lonely life," she says. "If you're moving away from home and going out on this world stage, you could spend seven nights a week sitting in your hotel room, looking at four walls, effectively. It's quite a selfish sport."
Does that loneliness apply to a golfer's partner? "You definitely have to enjoy your own company as a golfer's wife."
But Caroline, in golf shoes and a swinging high ponytail, was never far from him. "There was always someone to go out for dinner with that night, always someone to talk to if you'd had a bad day. I watched all the golf. I would walk 18 holes a day. When he wanted to talk to me about it, I knew exactly where he was coming from.
"From a psychological point of view, it's very important to have somebody to talk it through with," she says, noting her husband's tendency to be "wired".
Caroline had a four-year old, Paddy, and was pregnant with Ciaran when Padraig won the British Open in 2007. "Can we put ladybirds in it?" the boy was heard to ask his daddy as they held his cup, and the world was sold on the Harrington family. Within another summer Padraig had broken records and won two more Majors, a second British Open and the US PGA Championship.
The couple were gilded, their entourage lengthening. Padraig's caddy, Ronan Flood, had recently married Caroline's younger sister, Susie. It all seems idyllic. Caroline won't say that it isn't. "You couldn't write the script, could you? We're very close."
Parents, brothers, uncles and friends joined for the tournaments. Padraig Harrington, a famously cerebral and analytical sportsman, had his psychologist beside him too. There was the private plane. An unusual sight for the solitary golfer, the group became known as "team Padraig".
Now the words on the script are not so clear, and prestige isn't what it once was. Caroline describes Padraig (45), as an "elder statesman" on tour, and laughs that the younger golfers see him as an "aul fella". Is this a critical year for the family? He has not had a big victory since winning the Honda Classic at Palm Beach in April 2015. They say it is not looking good for this year's Ryder Cup team, and that making the Olympics is a long-shot. Ask golfers, they will tell you something about "exemptions" coming to an end. Caroline dismisses all misgivings. "With golf, there's always next week. And it doesn't matter what age you are. He could still be playing at 70.
"Do I think he has another Major in him? I do, definitely."
While Caroline is not formally his manager - Padraig has a PA and manager with IMG to schedule tours and negotiate those tricky sporting contracts - she is the matriarch, who must put a normal family life in place to allow him to do his job. "All correspondence has to come through me," she says rather sharply. Communions and Confirmations are not to be missed, even if it might mean flying in from Qatar for just a few days. Discussing their complicated diary - which she masterminds together with their nanny, Kathleen - she uses words like "smooth", "seamless", "scheduled".
"So, I don't 'manage him' but I do, 'manage' him, yes."
Without her, it seems there would be no three-time Major-winning Irish golf star. His organisational skills are "non-existent," she clucks. "He's so focused on his golf, his time-management skills are appalling."
Padraig's many public roles include acting as global ambassador for the Special Olympics, fronting charities like the Make a Wish Foundation (for which Caroline is also an ambassador) and a designing golf-wear for Dunnes Stores. Caroline shadows this role in particular. She has been closely involved in designing the chic polo shirts, knit sweaters and cropped trousers of Padraig Harrington's ladies' golf line.
Would it not be nice to see recognition through this label for her role as Mrs Padraig Harrington? This is the longest she thinks about a question - not more than two seconds - and her answer is no. "I think I'm very lucky to have the life that I lead. I've two beautiful kids that keep me busy. I don't feel I need my achievements to be highlighted, I just do what I do, and Padraig does what he does."
If her life had turned out differently, what would she have done? Event management, she believes. "I'm particularly organised, borderline OCD." Or sports broadcasting: "I love sports so much." She adds, without an iota of regret, that she is a "bit past it now". And giggles.
Instead, she has laden her precise skills into organising the annual Crystal Ball for the Make a Wish foundation. ("Any charity that can put a smile on a child's face is worthwhile, in my book.") As for sports broadcasting, "I do a lot of shouting on the sidelines. Saturdays and Sundays, I spend most of my life on the side of a rugby pitch." Both Paddy (12) and Ciaran (eight) play rugby. Their golf lessons, too, are picking up.
The family house is in Rathmichael, south county Dublin and comes with two-and-a-half acres of land, a tennis court and outdoor golf facilities, indoor games room for snooker and table-tennis, and a golf room where Padraig practises away on his golf simulator.
When he comes home, she says, he practises every day, including Christmas day. Then he has corporate matters, and public appearances to make. I wonder how much she would like if the couple could have this time together. She doesn't answer as I expect. "He ruins my routines. I have my routines…He does like to mess up my bedtimes."
And, she considers, "there's an awful lot more work when he's home. He doesn't believe in soup and a sandwich, he likes cooked food all the time." Does the man cook? "Never. Toast is about how far he stretches to cooking." She happily describes making him his preferred light meal of stir fries, and how she loves to make lasagne, curries and barbecues.
But he is away in faraway places for about 32 weeks of the year. "Thirty-two weeks are a lot of weeks," Caroline asserts. This weekend the whole family is at the K Club for the Irish Open, after that they'll travel to the British Open and around the US. But there is little that's "glamorous" about touring. She must carefully choose destinations where there will be beaches and activities for their children, particularly their eight-year old. "I've been to every zoo and aquarium in every city."
When we meet, Padraig is in Florida competing in The Players Championship at Sawgrass (he had a poor week and missed the cut). Caroline's white smart phone flashes his name, her eyes light up - "ah there he is, speak of the devil" - and she answers to silence. She shrugs, "It's not connecting."
What is the secret to this long-distance marriage? "Ooh, that's a good one…" She mentions again that she is competitive - "equally, if not more competitive than Padraig. I want him to do well all the time". It doesn't matter if she is with him to share his joy or watching from a TV alone. "A win is a win is a win."
She may not say so aloud, but their affection for each other is obvious. In their downtime, they like to beat each other in table tennis. Almost 30 years since they met, they still love the movies. They go to Dundrum cinema to "watch all the latest movies" with a box of popcorn, sometimes alone but mostly with team Padraig - Ronan and Susie.
What does Caroline think of the old saying that behind every great man is a great woman? "I believe it's very true". Does she believe that behind every great person, man or woman, is a great partner? "If it was the female who was performing on a world stage, she'd have to have the guy behind her who was enabling her to do it."
With natural honesty, she is the first of either of us to mention that she has a secret weapon, too. That is their full-time nanny, "Kathleen Foley from Youghal in Cork. She's been with us for eight years." The young woman lives with them and eats with them - "she's another member of the family.
"You were talking about me being Padraig's support - so she's mine. She's amazing."
When Padraig is away, at the end of a long day of drop-offs and collections to and from school, gymnastics, piano lessons, she and Kathleen sit down in front of the TV, "and watch our programmes that we taped that day" - Corrie, Emmerdale, her favourite box sets Criminal Minds, Suits, Scandal and Blacklist. Oh, and "if the golf is on."
Caroline's style file
Caroline wears cream Pinko top and black leather trousers, Caroline’s own
By her own admission, Caroline Harrington loves clothes. When it comes to her wardrobe choices, she says: "I like structure and I like colour, I absolutely love colour. My favourite colour is royal blue, I don't know if it's because my school uniform was blue, I like strong colours on me."
Padraig also likes colour and tends to wear strong colours on the course in items from the golf collection he launched at Dunnes Stores. It has expanded from menswear into ladies, with kids' golf clothes coming through this year.
Caroline is actively involved in the design process and clearly likes the other womenswear ranges in store. When her youngest son, Ciaran, made his Communion in a private ceremony last month - because his dad was away for his school class Communion ceremony scheduled for last weekend - Caroline wore a Paul Costelloe coat and dress.
"If I was going out at night, I like leather trousers or a leather skirt with a nice top, and for a lunch or an occasion I would tend to go for quite a structured dress. I don't wear fashion because it is in fashion or because it is on trend. I wear fashion that suits my body and that I like. You are not going to find me wearing something just because it is in fashion," she says.
Caroline doesn't need a second to consider her favourite buys. "I'm a handbag girl," she announces with a wide smile, "I've probably got as many shoes as handbags because I tend to match one to the other. I'm an absolute handbag fiend.
"For my 40th I got the necklace I'm wearing in the photos, and when my children were born, I got a watch for one and a ring for the other. And when Padraig won all three majors, I got a nice present."
For her 40th birthday three years ago, Caroline commissioned a dress from designer Lya Solis who was then based in Powerscourt Town House. And Caroline's expert eye for detail meant she had the ultimate ace in her back pocket at the Ryder Cup eve of championships dinner last year. The European ladies wore a mix of short dresses, the US ladies nearly all wore long. Caroline's choice of an ink blue, beaded lace Lya Solis dress, knee-length at the front, with a mini train that fell to the floor, meant she had the best of both worlds.
Caroline is very practical when it comes to golfwear when supporting her husband. If it's very hot, she will wear a dress and low flip flop-style footwear, but usually it's lots of layers and golf shoes. She loves walking and keeps herself trim with Pilates with Eva Berg, and every Tuesday, Caroline walks from Bray to Greystones with her dad.
Photography by Patrick Bolger