Saturday 1 October 2016

Christy O'Connor Jnr - The man who rocked Fred Couples in 1989 Ryder Cup

Phil Casey

Published 06/01/2016 | 19:21

The European team retained the Ryder Cup at the Belfry golf course after the 1989 match ended in a 14-14 tie with the United States team. From left. Back row: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Mark James, Tony Jacklin (captain), Jose-Maria Canizares, Gordon Brand Jnr, Ronan Rafferty and Jose-Maria Olazabal. Front row: Christy O'Connor Jnr, Howard Clark, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Sam Torrance.
The European team retained the Ryder Cup at the Belfry golf course after the 1989 match ended in a 14-14 tie with the United States team. From left. Back row: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Mark James, Tony Jacklin (captain), Jose-Maria Canizares, Gordon Brand Jnr, Ronan Rafferty and Jose-Maria Olazabal. Front row: Christy O'Connor Jnr, Howard Clark, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Sam Torrance.

Not many people believed Christy O'Connor Jnr had much of a chance to pull off the most famous win of his career, a fact which had not escaped his attention.

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''I'd felt terrible at breakfast that morning because of an article writing me off in one of the Sunday newspapers," O'Connor Jnr, who has died at the age of 67, recalled years later of his vital Ryder Cup singles victory over Fred Couples in 1989.

''I felt the pressure it put on me was too much. Tony Jacklin, the captain, was brilliant on the final hole. He said on the 18th tee that if I put the pressure on, Fred wouldn't be able to take it.

''Even though I was miles behind him after the tee shots, Jacko didn't lose faith. 'Put it on the green, I've a feeling that something will happen,' he said.

''Well everyone knows that I played the shot of my life, a two iron from 235 yards that finished four foot from the hole. I guess you could say I did put it on the green and something did happen. I remember looking up to the sky with my arms outstretched and tears ran down my face. It was unforgettable.

''It was the greatest and most emotional moment of my professional life.''

Born in 1948, O'Connor Jnr's introduction to golf came at Galway Golf Club near his home in Knocknacarra and he followed in the illustrious footsteps of his uncle Christy O'Connor Snr by joining the professional ranks in 1967.

From the start of the European Tour in 1972 O'Connor Jnr did not finish outside the top 100 on the Order of Merit for his first 21 seasons, recording four victories which included a fitting triumph in the Irish Open.

Although first contested in 1927, the Irish Open's revival at Woodbrook in 1975 after an absence of 22 years was made all the more dramatic when O'Connor Jnr held off Harry Bannerman to win by a single shot, an achievement which saw him greeted by his uncle beside the 18th green with a bottle of champagne.

"He always preached to me that I shouldn't get carried away, whatever the circumstances, but this was a bit special," O'Connor Jnr recalled.

That win led to a first Ryder Cup appearance later that year, although O'Connor Jnr lost both of his matches as Great Britain and Ireland lost 21-11 to a star-studded American side at Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania.

It was 14 years before O'Connor Jnr tasted victory again on the European Tour, although a consistent season in 1985 - including a share of third in the Open after a course-record 64 in the opening round at Sandwich - meant he was in the final Ryder Cup qualifying place entering the last event.

However, after missing the cut and being overtaken by Jose Maria Canizares, O'Connor Jnr had to rely on a wild card and was overlooked in favour of Jose Rivero, with Ken Brown and Nick Faldo gaining the other picks.

"I am disgusted and totally shattered," said a furious O'Connor, who had missed out on automatic qualification by just £115.

In 1989, victory in the Jersey Open had O'Connor in position to qualify before Canizares edged ahead again at the last minute, leaving captain Jacklin to apparently decide between O'Connor and Howard Clark, with Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle seen as certainties to be picked.

Lyle, however, had already told Jacklin he did not want to be selected due to a loss of form and the 41-year-old O'Connor got the nod ahead of compatriot Philip Walton. "Christy was very unfortunate not to be in the team in 1985, but on this occasion I favoured him because of his experience," Jacklin said.

Left out on the opening day as Europe built a 5-3 lead, O'Connor and Ronan Rafferty lost their foursomes match on Saturday morning but the home side were still two points ahead entering the singles, which began with defeats for Seve Ballesteros and Langer.

Jose Maria Olazabal, Rafferty and Mark James put Europe back in front and then it was time for O'Connor to shine, followed fittingly by that man Canizares, who defeated Ken Green in the match behind to ensure Europe could not lose.

The fact that Gordon Brand Jnr, Sam Torrance, Faldo and Ian Woosnam all lost their matches to result in a 14-14 tie has largely been forgotten, but O'Connor's contribution - marked by a plaque on the 18th fairway - never will be.

In 1992, O'Connor claimed the last of his European Tour titles in the British Masters, just 12 days after surviving a helicopter crash when the aircraft plunged 200 feet as he surveyed the course he was designing at City West in Dublin.

He went on to win the Senior British Open in 1999 and successfully defended the title a year later, as well as winning twice on the Champions Tour in America before developing his career as a golf course designer and producing his own range of wines.

O'Connor Jnr is survived by his wife Ann, son Nigel and daughter Ann. The couple's other son, Darren, died in a road accident in 1998 aged 17.

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