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Obituary: John O'Leary

Golfer who won the Irish Open and shaped the game's future, writes Dermot Gilleece

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VICTORIOUS: John O’Leary with his trophy after winning the Carroll’s Irish Open in the summer of 1982

VICTORIOUS: John O’Leary with his trophy after winning the Carroll’s Irish Open in the summer of 1982

VICTORIOUS: John O’Leary with his trophy after winning the Carroll’s Irish Open in the summer of 1982

John O'Leary, who held a unique place in tournament golf as a player and legislator, died in London last Wednesday after a long illness. The Irish Open champion of 1982 was 70.

"It is very gratifying to think I will always be remembered for that win," he said when attending the 2007 staging at Adare Manor. "But I have no great wish to remain the last Irishman to do so. It should have moved to other hands a long time ago."

In fact the baton was eventually passed to Padraig Harrington on that occasion. By which time O'Leary had made a significant contribution as a key figure behind the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club.

"It is incalculable what John O'Leary has put back into the game," said Ken Schofield, former executive director of the European Tour. "He did it as a director of the tour, through consistent support of everything we have tried to do over the years, characterised by the common sense he brings to board decisions."

As it happened, ill health meant O'Leary played his last round of golf in October 1995, in a Golf Foundation outing in England.

This was seven years after he sustained serious injury to his back in a car accident when making the short journey from Wentworth to Heathrow Airport.

It meant spinal surgery in 1991, to be followed later by hip surgery in 1999. Still, he remained a director of the European Tour from 1985 until his final board meeting in March of last year, all the while maintaining a position as director of golf for Buckinghamshire GC.

Born in Blackrock, Co Dublin, on August 19, 1949, he claimed to have had only tenuous family connections in golf, though his Ballina-based uncle, Mixie Murphy, was president of the Golfing Union of Ireland in 1963.

In the event, he became a regular teenage guest at Joe Carr's home in Sutton, Dublin, during summer holidays from school.

This seems to have had a significant impact on what became a sparkling golf career.

"Joe would spend some time with us in the morning, then we worked on our golf all day," O'Leary recalled of an enduring friendship with the Carr children and a keen rivalry with Joe's son, Roddy.

O'Leary was a gifted sportsman. Apart from his golfing skills, he scored a try when playing at centre in the Blackrock College rugby team which won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 1967, beating St Mary's College in the final. Three years later, he won the South of Ireland Amateur Golf Championship at Lahinch.

In 1970 he quit the amateur scene to compete in professional ranks. In all, four tournament wins seemed a modest return for his talent, but he gained the distinction of Ryder Cup honours at Laurel Valley, Pennsylvania, in 1975, with fellow Irish representatives Christy O'Connor Jnr and Eamonn Darcy.

In 1982, resplendent in flamboyant clothes and an Afro hairdo, he lit up the national sporting scene by winning the Irish Open at Portmarnock for prize money of £13,386.90.

Against an international field which included Tom Kite from the US, he edged to a one-stroke victory over England's Maurice Bembridge.

As it happened, his later contribution to the game had already been decided by that stage.

He explained: "When the Tour got its complete independence in 1975, Neil Coles asked me if I would come on the Players Committee and I got elected on to it."

Then in 1985 he joined his one-time mentor, John Jacobs, the founding father of the European Tour, on the board of directors.

In 1997, he replaced no less a figure than Seve Ballesteros on the Tour's Ryder Cup committee. This particular appointment left him ideally placed to boost Ireland's bid for the biennial showpiece nine years later.

Reflecting on what proved to be a splendid event, O'Leary told me: "The Smurfit company were very supportive of golf for many years, which made them very deserving, in my view, of the honour of hosting the Ryder Cup. It seemed a perfect fit and I'm delighted with the way things turned out."

There was little indication of an aptitude for boardroom badinage when his greatest competitive moment arrived four days before his 33rd birthday. "My mother told me I never opened my mouth, from the time we left the house in Blackrock until I got out of the car at Portmarnock," he said.

From there, his splendid golf did the talking.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Sunday Independent