Sunday 25 September 2016

Christy O'Connor Snr - pioneer golfer remembered

December 21, 1924 - May 14, 2016

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Christy O'Connor Snr.
Christy O'Connor Snr.

Christy O'Connor Snr was more than a professional golfer - he was a pioneer in a field in which Ireland now holds its own against the world. The Galway native, who died this week, was renowned by the global golfing community; he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009, one of just two Irishmen to achieve this honour.

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From 1955 to 73 he set a Ryder Cup appearance record of 10, only surpassed by Nick Faldo in 1997. Poignantly, his death now comes less than five months after his nephew, fellow golfer Christy Jr, passed away.

Christy was born on December 21, 1924 in Knocknacarra, near Salthill - one of a family of five boys and six girls. The family farm was situated next to Galway Golf Club; their cottage actually overlooked the first green, and young Christy would watch golf being played over the boundary wall - thus a lifelong passion was kindled.

Club professional Pat Quinn gave him some old hickory-shafted clubs to practice with. Christy later went on to become Quinn's assistant at the city club, then worked as pro and greenkeeper at Tuam in north Co Galway.

By 1951, the young man's playing prowess was so evident that Tuam members collected money to send Christy to the Open, that year taking place at Royal Portrush in Co Antrim. He finished in a creditable 19th place, and his pro career was up and running.

On moving to Bundoran, the club generously gave Christy the time and facilities to improve his game. They also paid his expenses to travel over to Merseyside for the 1955 Swallow Penfold tournament. It would turn out to be a rather historic one.

Christy won the competition, earning considerable prize money of £1000 - roughly equivalent to a year's wages in that time, and the first sum of this size ever offered in British golf - but perhaps more importantly, his first pro title.

Thirty years of age was considered relatively late to be making your mark as a professional, but Christy would confound expectations by improving throughout the next decade, and indeed right through the one after that, remaining competitive until his late fifties. Remarkably, he won at least one trophy every year from 1955 to 1970 - an almost unparalleled level of consistency.

During the early career part of that career he was known as Christy O'Connor, but once his late nephew began making waves in the 1970s, the two men became known as Senior and Junior. To his peers, though, Christy Snr was simply called Himself.

Perhaps his most famous triumph was at the 1966 Carroll's International at Royal Dublin, where a stunning run of form over the final three holes saw him sneak past Eric Brown to take the title. A plaque now stands at the 16th tee to mark his extraordinary achievement.

But this was only one of 63 professional victories, among them more than 20 significant British and Irish tournaments. Christy's titles included the 1956 and 1959 British Masters; the 1970 John Player Classic, which at the time offered the richest prize offered in golf (£25,000); the Irish PGA Championship (10 wins between 1958 and 1978); the Irish Dunlop eight times; the 1960 Ballantine Tournament; the Martini International in 1963 and '64; the Ulster Open in '66 and '69; and three victories in the Carroll's International.

Christy's only Major appearance was at the British Open, which he contested 26 times, securing a top-10 finish on 10 occasions. He never won the iconic Claret Jug, though he came agonisingly close in 1965 when bogeying the final hole to lose out by a single stroke.

He was also invited to compete in the Masters several times, but persistently declined, citing the expense involved in making the trip Stateside. Twice - in 1961 and '62 - Christy was honoured with the Harry Vardon Trophy for topping the British Tour's Order of Merit.

In team golf, he played in the World Cup on a staggering 15 occasions. His victory, with Harry Bradshaw, for Ireland in the 1958 competition - then called the Canada Cup - put Christy, and Irish golf, firmly on the world map.

But even this was dwarfed by his exploits in the Ryder Cup, team golf's blue riband event. In those record 10 consecutive tournaments he was on the winning side just once, but played a crucial role, defeating Dow Finsterwald (USPGA champion the following year) by a massive 7 and 6 in 1957.

At the age of 48, Christy tied his match with then-Open champion Tom Weiskopf on his Ryder Cup swansong. He also represented Ireland or the British Isles with distinction at the Joy Cup, Slazenger Trophy, RTV International and PGA Cup, at which he was non-playing captain.

Later in his career, he excelled on the Seniors tour, landing the PGA Seniors Championship six times and the World Senior Championship twice. And in 1982, to show there was fight in the old dog yet, he took part in the Irish Open - and tied for third, only bettered by Greg Norman and Faldo.

In 1998 he shared the greens with none other than Bill Clinton at a pro-am. The then-US president sent a photograph with a handwritten note: "Thanking you for a wonderful day, wishing I had your swing!"

Christy's contribution to his game and country was recognised in 2005 when he was one of several golfers honoured on postage stamps for "the enormous contribution that Irish players had made to the Ryder Cup down the years". The competition was due to take place at The K Club the following year.

Legendary golf commentator Peter Alliss led the tributes to Christy this week, describing him as "one of Ireland's greatest ever sportsmen. I was his (senior) Ryder Cup partner for many years; we used to joke that nobody else would play with us.

"He was a wonderful partner and a beautiful golfer. He really was a genius of the sport and a lovely man. He could be a bit naughty at times and liked to take a jar, but he was always a great chum."

Current Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke said, "Christy was in many ways the father of Irish golf... he was a golf icon and a wonderful person as well."

Christy O'Connor Snr died on May 14 at the Mater Hospital in Dublin. His funeral took place on Tuesday at St John the Baptist Church on Clontarf Road, followed by burial at St Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton.

He is survived by wife Mary, children Christopher, Peter, Marguerite, Therese and Joan, grandchildren and relatives. A fourth daughter, Anne-Marie, had predeceased him in 2010.

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