Monday 24 October 2016

Obituary: Christy O'Connor Jnr

Born: August 19, 1948; died: January 6, 2016

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Wildcard: Christy O'Connor Jnr during the first round of the Handa Senior Masters at Stapleford Park in 2010.
Wildcard: Christy O'Connor Jnr during the first round of the Handa Senior Masters at Stapleford Park in 2010.

Even for those agnostic about golf, Christy O'Connor Jnr's legendary shot in the 1989 Ryder Cup is indelibly burned into the mind.

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The genial Galway man, who died on holiday in Tenerife this week aged just 67, fired an incredible long-distance stroke, which drew gasps from the Belfry crowd and landed just four feet from the 18th hole. This ensured a draw between the teams overall, and thus (because they were reigning champions) Europe retained the title. A plaque now stands there to commemorate this shot-of-a-lifetime.

His heroics came to form part of the sporting memory gallery from that decade, alongside Eamonn Coghlan raising his fist en route to World gold, or Séamus Darby's jig of delight after sinking Kerry's five-in-a-row ambitions. And Christy's victory in his match was even more remarkable in that it came over Fred Couples, a soon-to-be World No 1 and multiple major winner.

Christy had been a controversial omission from the 1985 Ryder Cup team, after narrowly missing out on automatic selection. However, Europe captain Tony Jacklin selected the then 41-year-old as a wild card for the 1989 competition; the rest is sporting history.

O'Connor later recalled his two stints - 1975 and 1989 - representing Europe. "The crowds change your whole attitude to the game: you would feel that you owe them, because they've come out in their thousands and wished you so well," he said. "It's very different to any other tournament, because you're playing for your team, your country and your family - but it's a great experience to be there."

That was probably Christy O'Connor Jnr's finest moment as a golfer, but there were other notable victories, both before and after (including on the sport's Seniors tour), in a lengthy career. Of course, the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree: his uncle, also called Christy, was a successful golfer before him.

Those Jnr and Snr suffixes became necessary when the younger O'Connor began to match his uncle's successes. In later years, Christy Jnr carved out a second career, in golf course design.

He was born on August 19, 1948 in Knocknacarra, Galway. Having joined the local Galway Golf Club before the age of 18, he turned professional in 1967.

Once the European Tour began in 1972, O'Connor established himself as one of its most talented and consistent players. He made the Order of Merit's top hundred in each of its first 21 years; his best ranking was seventh in 1975.

Four titles were annexed on the European Tour: the Martini International and Carroll's Irish Open (both in 1975), the 1989 Jersey Open and, three years later, the Dunhill British Masters. That Irish Open win was particularly special as the event had been in hiatus for 22 years.

His 17 professional wins also included the Irish Match Play Championship (three times), Zambia Open, Irish Dunlop Tournament and Sumrie-Bournemouth Better-Ball (both of those won twice, the latter with fellow Irishman Eamonn Darcy).

Christy Jnr's accomplishments on the European Senior Tour and US-based Champions Tour were impressive too. He won Senior British Open in 1999 and 2000, and two US events, also in 1999.

Christy played in more than 20 majors during his career, including the Masters in 1977, and tied for third at the 1985 Open. As well as being a two-time Ryder Cup competitor, he represented Ireland in several World Cups and Dunhill Cups. Last December he received the Golf Digest lifetime achievement award.

The second aspect of his career involved the courses. O'Connor forged an excellent reputation as a golf course architect from 1986 onwards, with over 30 projects throughout Europe, from creation from scratch to improvement.

Irish courses included Concra Wood in Monaghan, Mount Wolseley in Carlow (where he had a house), and Headfort New. He described his philosophy as aiming "to create something seamless with nature, whilst bearing in mind playing skills of all levels".

Christy Jnr retained strong links with Galway until his death. Local TD Brian Walsh this week described the man as "a great talent who brought much enjoyment to many and worked quietly to benefit Galway causes", while Councillor Michael Fahy said he was "one of Galway's greatest ambassadors".

Just last month, O'Connor presented Galway Hospice with a cheque for more than €200,000, having organised a hugely successful celebrity tournament in Galway Bay Golf Resort, one of the courses he designed, last July.

Peter Murphy, of Galway club, told Review: "We are shocked by the news. Christy was a huge part of this club. He opened a new clubhouse here last May. He will be badly missed."

There was more to the man than golf, of course. A widely beloved figure - surely a rarity in the cut-throat world of professional sport - Christy's generosity and decency were proven by his committed support of the Special Olympics (the Irish branch of that organisation described him as "one of Ireland's greatest ever talents and a dedicated patron").

He also found time to develop an interest in wine, going so far as to found his own label, in collaboration with the Herdade das Servas vineyard in the Alentejo wine-producing region of Portugal.

There was also some tragedy in an otherwise blessed life. In 1998, Christy's 17-year-old son Darren died in a car accident. The bereaved father poignantly said: "(Darren) was a great guy. He had just reached the 17th and if he had not seen the rough, he would have strolled home."

Tributes to Christy Jnr have flooded in since he passed away. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: "I knew Christy personally, and he loved and lived life to the full. His premature passing will be a source of great sadness to many Irish people and all golfing fans in Ireland and across Europe."

President Michael D Higgins described the golfer as "an iconic figure (who) represented his country and its people on the international stage with distinction, dignity and great humour. He was always very proud of his Galway connections and gave support to so many admirable and humanitarian projects. We will miss his warm personality, his generosity and his great resilience of spirit."

Current Europe captain Paul McGinley - who, in 2002, emulated Christy by hitting the Ryder Cup-winning shot, also at The Belfry - said simply that the Galway man was "a true Irishman, character and golfer."

Christy O'Connor Jnr died on Wednesday, January 6. He is survived by his wife Ann, daughter Ann and son Nigel.

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