Wednesday 1 June 2016

Farewell to hero of the Ryder Cup who earned his share of glory

Christy O'Connor Junior has carved his niche in Irish golfing story and his course design work will endure as his legacy to the game

Published 07/01/2016 | 02:30

Christy O’Connor Jnr is lifted up by team-mate Sam Torrance after Europe’s victory in the 1989 Ryder Cup. Photo: Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Christy O’Connor Jnr is lifted up by team-mate Sam Torrance after Europe’s victory in the 1989 Ryder Cup. Photo: Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Christy O Connor Jnr recovering from a broken leg in 2001. Photo: Andrew Downes

They will remember him. How could they forget?

The big smile, the bustling energy field that surrounded the man, the mellifluous Galway lilt in the accent, the roguish manner, the tales that grew a little taller with every telling.

If he wasn't enthusiastically promoting the never-seen-before technological excellence of the new irons that he was using, he was adding 20 or maybe 50 yards to that drive he hit on the 18th depending on how many times he repeated the yarn.

"Full-on" and "larger than life" was Des Smyth's description.

That was putting it mildly.

Charismatic, engaging, ready for a pint and song and music and the craic - all that was indeed a core part of Christy Junior's personality, but they were just some of the more obvious characteristics.

He was also driven and competitive, resilient in the face of tragedy and a very successful, highly respected professional golfer and golf course architect.

Generations

A Ryder Cup hero of '89. The first man to win the Irish Open when it came back to life under the sponsorship of Carrolls in 1975.

Twice a Senior British Open champion. A two-time winner on the ultra-competitive US Champions Tour.

A proud record indeed, but for so many golf fans at home and abroad who knew him as either "Christy Junior" or just "Junior", there was an interesting revelation in the foreword of his 2012 autobiography written with Justin Doyle and published by Paperweight Press.

There were echoes of the Johnny Cash song 'A Boy Named Sue' when Christy revealed that he never liked the "Junior" tag.

"Let us clear up one thing here and now at the very start. I have never been comfortable with that title, name, term, nickname, or whatever you wish to call it," he wrote.

It was given to him by the European Tour to distinguish him from his uncle once the nephew arrived on the circuit.

"Essentially it was all done for information and statistical reasons," wrote Christy. He went on to say he thought it was "terrible" in Irish life where males carry same Christian name through several generations.

That was why he made a conscious decision to name his own sons Darren and Nigel and stated: "It is so important for an individual to have their own identity and complete independence from everybody else. Go out there and make your own name."

Well, he may have had to endure a professional lifetime of being known as 'Junior', but he certainly became renowned internationally as a golfer and course designer.

Born in 1948, he did not have a strong background in the amateur ranks, but that hardly mattered.

He started out learning his golf at Galway GC near Knocknacarra where the family had a small farm. Christy, his seven brothers and only sister, Maureen, learned all about hard work on that farm.

Golf began with sneaking onto the fairways of Galway Golf Club, and later doing good, old-fashioned caddying to earn a few shillings.

Eventually Christy became a member of the club, and determined that golf, not farming, was going to be the way he earned his living.

Christy turned pro in 1967, and that was the start of the great adventure.

He was a club pro in Carlow where he met his future wife, Ann O'Boyle, and gradually he went on to play tournaments while still carrying out his duties at Carlow.

The 1974 Zambian Open was his first tournament win and a year later came the Irish Open success at Woodbrook. By then, Christy was a fully-fledged European Tour player.

He knew success, and enjoyed it. He and his family also have had to live with the loss of son Darren in a car accident in which Darren's 18-year-old friend David Quinn and near-neighbour Michael Hynes (52) also died.

Six years earlier, Christy escaped death in a helicopter accident at Citywest, and in 2001, his left leg was crushed when his Harley Davidson motorbike fell on him.

I visited Christy as he was recovering from that incident. The leg was held together by a support with 13 pins and two bolts fixed into it.

In this situation, the measure of the man shone through.

Blessed

"I have been through hell and back," he said.

"You don't get over losing a child, but you learn to live with it, and I have been blessed with a wonderful wife in Ann, and I have two wonderful children, Nigel and my daughter Ann.

"When you read in the newspapers the kind of things that happen to people, you will always see that there are people worse off than yourself. And people have been unbelievable.

"You don't realise how many friends you have and how many people care until you have troubles.

"People think it's a glamorous life but golf is a difficult game to play for a living. It hardens you, but gives you an inner strength, and as we have found in our family, when life gets difficult, you get strength that you never think you have within you."

Christy did come back to play again but increasingly concentrated on his very successful golf design business.

His beloved Galway Bay and Headfort (New) are two of his best in an impressive design portfolio, which also featured work abroad.

Tony Jacklin featured in Christy's career in two notable situations - one when he didn't select the Irishman for the 1985 staging of the Ryder Cup and the other as captain of that 1989 team.

There was no doubt that O'Connor felt very hard done by to miss out for The Belfry in 1985, the year he came so close to winning the Open Championship at Sandwich.

Two years later, Christy missed out on playing in the USA for Europe, the first time the Americans had been defeated on home soil.

Naturally, he was delighted that his great friend Eamonn Darcy was the hero, but Christy was left wondering if he was ever going to have his chance at the Ryder Cup.

Everything changed, and changed forever, when the fate of the 1989 event was left in Christy Junior's hands, and he produced the iconic shot with his 2-iron against Fred Couples.

O'Connor was not merely proving something to the opposition when he swung that club from 235 yards on the 18th that day.

On the morning of the final day singles, that very morning Christy had been upset to read British ­journalists writing him off against Couples, the young American ­nicknamed 'Boom, Boom', who was on an inexorable path to world No 1 status.

With O'Connor having failed to win a full point in either his debut in 1975 or in the 1989 match, nobody gave him a chance before the singles.

"But with his side desperate for the point his victory over Couples would bring, Jacklin enthused him and, with Couples a full 50 yards ahead of him after their drives on the last hole, O'Connor hit his approach to four feet.

Couples knew that the Irishman had two putts for the win and graciously conceded. A legendary moment in Ryder Cup history was born.

Tony Jacklin led the eulogies from abroad yesterday.

"It is very sad news," he said. "Looking back, it was very hard not to pick Christy for the 1985 Ryder Cup but José Rivero had won on the Belfry that year.

"But we were delighted to have him on the team in 1989. I caught Christy on the 18th and said, 'Come on, one more good swing for Ireland' and of course, he hit the shot of his lifetime.

"We couldn't have retained it without him.

"We had a great team unity and he was a big part of that.

"Obviously Christy played in the shadow of his uncle, but he became a legend in his own right."

There is of course a huge void now left in the O'Connor clan, one that cannot be filled.

Christy was loved and admired and respected and his company was hugely enjoyed by his friends, particularly his old comrades from those heady, exciting years of the Seventies and Eighties when the European Tour grew from strength to strength.

Our condolences are offered to the O'Connor family.

May he rest in peace.

Christy O'Connor Factfile

Born: August 19, 1948, at Knocknacarra, Co Galway

Family: Wife: Ann (married 1976); Children: Ann (1977), Nigel (1979), Darren (RIP 1981-1998)

Turned Pro: 1967

Tournament wins: European Tour (4) - (Martini International 1975; Carrolls Irish Open 1975; Jersey European Open 1989; Dunhill British Masters 1992)

Other wins: (9) - 1973 Irish Match Play Championship; 1974 Zambian Open; 1975 Irish Match Play Championship, Irish Dunlop Tournament; 1976 Sumrie-Bournemouth Better-Ball (with Eamonn Darcy); 1977 Irish Match Play Championship, Irish Dunlop Tournament; 1978 Sumrie-Bournemouth Better-Ball (with Eamonn Darcy); 1990 555 Kenya Open

European Senior Tour: (2) - Senior British Open 1999 & 2000

US Champions Tour: (2) - State Farm Classic 1999, Foremost Insurance Championship 1999

Teams: Ryder Cup 1975, '89 (Europe retained trophy); Alfred Dunhill Cup 1985, '89, '92; World Cup 1974, '75, '78, '85, '89, '92; Hennessy Cognac Cup 1974 (winners); 84 Double Diamond 1972, '74, '75, '76, '77; Philip Morris International 1976; Praia D'el Rey European Cup 1998.

Biggest European Tour Prize - €140,000, Dunhill British Masters 1992 (Approx €221,670 today)

Irish Independent

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