Thursday 25 May 2017

Open Championship 1985 - the one that got away from Irish icon

Christy O'Connor Jnr breaks down in tears as he is congratulated by his wife Ann on the 18th green at the Belfry. Photo: Simon Bruty /Allsport
Christy O'Connor Jnr breaks down in tears as he is congratulated by his wife Ann on the 18th green at the Belfry. Photo: Simon Bruty /Allsport
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The O'Connor contribution to Irish golf well deserved at least one Open Championship between Christy Senior and Junior.

Sadly, the golfing gods decreed otherwise, but it was not for the want of trying.

Christy Senior was joint third in 1958, finishing just a shot behind Australia's Peter Thomson and Dave Thomas, who went into a play-off, with Thomson taking the Claret Jug.

Senior was joint third again in 1961, four shots adrift of champion Arnold Palmer.

He came even closer in 1965: Thomson, gaining his fifth British Open, had two shots to spare over joint second placed Christy Senior and Brian Huggett.

Twenty years later, the 1985 Open was played at Royal St George's, and Christy Junior lit a flame of hope among Irish golf fans when he shot a then record 64 in the first round.

On day two, his score soared to 76, but as Christy recalled when we met last year, that was not as bad as it looks in the record books.

"I got off to such a great start, 64 in the first round. The second day, I had the best 76 I probably ever had in my life, in a hurricane," he said.

"I thought I was good enough to win it. I felt great, I had no nerves, but I couldn't make a putt. I had 37 putts in the last round."

Horrendous

That final round was played in the company of the eventual winner, Sandy Lyle.

The Scot was struggling, and at one stage Junior thought it looked as if Lyle might be getting disheartened, and encouraged him to keep battling.

Then came a big turning point on the par-five 14th, where it looked as if Lyle had lost his ball in deep rough, but found it right on the five minute mark - after which he would have had to go back and play another one.

O'Connor watched Lyle give the ball a mighty swipe, and it came out into the middle of the fairway.

"He then hit a one-iron 290 yards, to 30 feet and holed it. That was turning a likely seven into a four," he recalled.

"He then birdied the next, full of vim and vigour, and I three-putted.

"On the 15th, he went ahead for the first time.

"On the 17th, I hit a putt right on his line, I made it for four. It was straight into the wind, so it was a hell of a par four for me.

"It was right on his line, I made that putt and he watched it so well that he holed it after me from about three feet for par.

"He was very lucky on 18, he duffed the first pitch but he hit an amazing second pitch to a foot, and that was it, he beat me," said O'Connor.

Junior was well aware that a golden opportunity had opened up, and had passed him by.

"That was my best chance, 1985. I had two chances in Birkdale, but probably wasn't experienced enough in '76, when Johnny Miller beat Seve and I finished fourth.

"Then (Birkdale) again in '83, I finished eighth. I was in there with a chance.

"But that was the Open, and I loved the Opens. Such a wonderful tournament."

Hero of Woodbrook

Christy O'Connor Junior won only four times on the regular Tour, but as long as the Irish Open is played, his name will live in the annals of our national open championship.

The first winner of the revived tournament under the Carrolls banner helped cement the popularity of the Irish Open with home galleries and for years afterwards, it was a success story.

What a different time it was, with the European Tour having been incorporated in 1972.

By 1975 the entire schedule consisted of 24 tournaments, including the three Majors in America which were not as welcoming or as accessible to European players as they are now.

The season began on April 8 in Portugal and ended in October in Italy.

August 28-31 was the slot allocated to the Irish Open in '75, featuring a strong field at Woodbrook, headed by the recently crowned British Open champion, Tom Watson.

Christy Junior knew the course well and had a good feeling going into the event, but still had to perform under the pressure of the capacity 10,000 spectators who thronged the fairways on the final day.

In the end, it was tough, it was tense, but Junior came through to defeat nearest challenger Harry Bannerman by just a shot on 21 under par.

And then came a real shock - a bomb scare which caused the course to be evacuated.

The presentation had to be delayed for an hour but nothing was going to spoilt Christy Junior's pleasure at carving out a famous victory.

Irish Independent

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