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Saturday 21 April 2018

'You often wonder on a bad day if it's worth it'

One of our golfing greats celebrates the heroics of others, his son's short life, and his own career, writes Andrea Byrne

Jim Mansfield Jnr's many misdemean-ours have been well publicised, but one of Ireland's best-loved golfers has revealed the heroic side of the troubled businessman who has been in court on drink-driving charges and is fighting off bank debts which are in multi-million-euro figures.

In 1992, Christy O'Connor Jnr had been designing a golf course for the Mansfield Group in City West, Dublin. They provided a helicopter to fly him home to Galway.

"The helicopter took off, got to about 200ft. I knew the pilot wasn't happy on the way up. It went up very, very sluggishly. All she said was, 'Oh Jesus,' and it just stopped," remembers Christy Jnr. "I saw the ground coming, and I thought, 'This is it, you're going.' I couldn't see any way out. I saw we were heading for the house, I thought that would have been a bad thing. In actual fact, it was a brilliant thing. We hit the roof and slid off it, on to the cars and then eventually on to the ground in the courtyard, so it broke the fall, but at this time the propeller was going at full speed.

"All I could see were sparks, and with your weight forward on the straps, you can't open them, so I couldn't move. I could smell the kerosene and I thought, 'This is going to go on fire ... '

"Young Jim Mansfield broke one of the windows that was left unbroken, came through the cockpit and undid my buckle first, got me out, and went back down and got her [the pilot] out."

"The Air Corps were there within minutes and they couldn't believe the aircraft didn't go on fire. It was a miracle. Thank God I am here to tell the story."

Last April a court was told that Jim Mansfield Jnr had signed a €6.28m bank loan even though he was dyslexic and had the reading ability of a seven-year-old -- traits that obviously didn't affect his courage in the face of grave danger.

The helicopter crash in 1992 was to be followed some years later by the tragic death of Christy's son. In September 1998, Christy's life was completely up-ended when 17-year-old Darren was killed in a car accident.

Darren, Christy's youngest child, had taken the family car from the family home in Clarinbridge, Co Galway.

"We had no idea he was driving the car, even that he was a driver of a car. He went as far as Killarney, met his girlfriend of that time, drove around, and came within a quarter of a mile from her home in Kilcolgan, Co Galway, where that fateful crash was to happen," says Christy.

Darren O'Connor was one of three young people killed in the crash.

On an RTE documentary, Christy Jnr speaks movingly about how, before his death, Darren showed promise of following in his footsteps.

"Without being biased, he could have been a really great player. How good? We'll never know now," he says emotionally. "He lived for the game of golf. He would always ask me what it would take to make a great golfer, how young was the youngest Ryder Cup player, who was the youngest to win the US Open.

"I'd say, 'You've great expectation.' He said: 'Dad, I have.' I had my own practise facility at my house; he would spend hours after school there.

"He was certainly becoming one hell of a striker. He was hitting the ball farther than I was. He won the under- 17s in Ireland and was only beaten by one shot to win the Under 21 champion."

Christy Jnr, and his wife Anne, who have two other children, says that golf helped him though the sorrow of burying his child, and that he looked to Darren for help in big competitions.

"I used Darren to get great effect in tournaments. I got great comfort, him beside me, pacing those fairways. You never forget, you wouldn't want to forget. It seems better to live with, if that's the right word. As far as we're concerned he's there with us and that's a huge thing."

Admittedly, Christy Jnr's professional golf career has been a colourful collection of highs and lows. In 1975 he won the Irish Open, and in the same year was selected for the Ryder Cup team, though the honour was somewhat bittersweet.

"I suppose the saddest thing about my first Ryder Cup was that I kept my uncle [Christy O'Connor Snr] out from making his 11th appearance, which would be a world record today, tied with Faldo."

In 1975, against his uncle's advice, Christy Jnr left Carlow Golf Club to go to the newly built Shannon Golf Club. "I remember Christy said, 'You're seventh in the order of merit, you'll be 47th next year.' It was nothing to do with the people of Shannon, but to do with competition I wouldn't have had. How right he was -- the next year I was 47th. That began a massive drought in my life. I was on a downward blow, non-stop, right on to 1980/81, when I just couldn't take anymore."

To get back to his best, Christy Jnr got a new sponsor, and moved from Shannon Golf Club to Gort in the County Galway.

He showed great form in 1985, so much so that everyone expected him to make the Ryder Cup team, but unfortunately he was overlooked.

"It was heartbreaking. I often thought it did my dad no good, he passed away that year ... I think that was one of the saddest times of my golfing life. I thought for certain that I was on the team."

Despite deservedly making the Ryder Cup team four years later, he was regarded by many in the British media as being the team's "weak link". However, he silenced these critics in spectacular fashion when he hit a perfect two iron to the 18th green in the singles match against one of the world's best players -- Fred Couples -- which won the tournament for Europe.

"You often wonder on bad days, will it ever be worth it, and that was one of the days that tells you, yes, it's worth it."

'This Sporting Life' is broadcast on Thursday at 7pm on RTE One

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