Thursday 22 March 2018

Dermot Gilleece: 'I will miss Christy O'Connor most as a man who was truly in love with golf'

Dermot Gilleece in conversatuion with Christy O’Connor on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Photo: David Conachy
Dermot Gilleece in conversatuion with Christy O’Connor on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Photo: David Conachy

Dermot Gilleece

Normally a man of remarkable composure in golfing matters, Christy O'Connor looked curiously bothered. "Now, I'm going to tell you something, but I can't tell you," he said mysteriously. "Something big is happening. That's as far as I can go."

It was the week prior to the Irish Open at Co Louth GC seven years ago and the great man was telling me as much as he dared about his impending elevation into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Now, a week prior to the latest staging at The K Club, we've lost him.

The reaction of his children spoke eloquently about qualities in this towering sportsman that the public never saw. "We couldn't have wished for a better dad," was how Therese, the third of four daughters, described him yesterday. "Things were never dull and boring with him around."

His son Christopher, one of twin boys, talked of the amazement of the medical staff at the Mater Hospital at his father's extraordinary will to live. "Dad battled to the end, but he died peacefully," he said. As it happened, the end, at the great age of 91, became inevitable after a massive heart attack last Thursday.

The Hall of Fame chose to honour him on the 50th anniversary of his appointment as professional at Royal Dublin. And images remain vivid of a familiar solitary figure with seven-iron in hand, hitting half-shots down by the back nine, on terrain very close to his heart.

Christy O'Connor competing in the Irish Open of 1981
Christy O'Connor competing in the Irish Open of 1981

"Back in 1950 I saw the Australian, Ossie Pickworth winning the Irish Open there," Christy once recalled. "I was Bob Wallace's assistant in Galway at the time and I travelled to see Dai Rees, Norman von Nida and all the other great players."

His initial admiration for Royal Dublin later developed into a profound love of the place. "The members have been fantastic to me," he said. "From the very start (in April 1959), I was invited to captains' dinners, which didn't often happen to club pros at that time. Then they made me an honorary life member."

Remarkably, he didn't consider himself worthy of applying for the job when it was advertised in the spring of 1959. So, Royal Dublin felt obliged to send a deputation down to Killarney, where their man was then attached.

"I remember when I wasn't showing that much interest, Mary (his wife) kicked me under the table," Christy later laughed. "She was fed up with all the driving to Shannon when I'd be coming back from trips abroad."

Christy O'Connor, third left, with Britain's 1955 Ryder Cup team
Christy O'Connor, third left, with Britain's 1955 Ryder Cup team

Christy's death, four months after the passing of his nephew Christy O'Connor Jnr, brings to mind a phone call which Jack Nicklaus made from Southampton on the occasion of those 2009 celebrations. "The timing was pretty good because I caught him on the first tee at Royal Dublin and Christy Junior was there, too," recalled Nicklaus, who described the Hall of Fame induction as "a great honour and well deserved".

The Bear went on: "And I talked to both of them. Christy (Snr) said 'Jack! What a surprise! This is something I will remember for the rest of my life'."

It could be said that Christy was doubly blessed in life. He had a wonderful, God-given talent for the game of golf and in October 1954, there was the blessing of marrying Tuam girl Mary Collins. Now, 62 years on, the man she had guided through a highly productive career while rearing their six children is lost to her. Which, in itself, is desperately sad.

When the cheering of the galleries had gone and his involvement in golf was limited essentially to watching tournaments on television, Christy loved to talk of the old times. And he singled out the 1951 Open Championship at Portrush as the most important tournament of his career.

"I was 26 at the time and it was my first taste of the big time, thanks to members of Tuam Golf Club, including Gerry Smye, Kitty MacCann's brother, who gave me £75 to cover my costs," he said. "I remember during practice rounds watching some of the top names such as Dai Rees, Max Faulkner, Ken Bousfield and, of course, Fred Daly and thinking to myself, 'Gee, I thought these guys would be much better'. You know, I could see nothing fantastic about them."

On that occasion, he finished in a share of 17th place behind Faulkner. My first sight of him in tournament action was in the 1960 Irish Hospital Sweeps Tournament at Woodbrook, where, as a rookie reporter with the Irish Press Group, I watched him set a course record 64 when beating Bousfield in an 18-hole play-off.

By that stage, he and Peter Alliss were developing a remarkable relationship as Ryder Cup partners. Recalling their first outing together, Alliss said: "On one of our early holes, I hit the ball into bushes and turned to Christy saying, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' To which Christy replied: 'Are you doing your best?' And when I assured him I was, he looked me in the eyes and said: 'Well, never apologise to me again.' And I never did."

The Englishman went on: "It seemed that destiny had decided we were a partnership for the long haul. And who would have thought of pairing chalk with cheese? Because that's what we were. Chalk and bloody cheese. In those days, Christy was what you might describe as a little bit rebellious, a bit of a smoking gun. And I suppose in a quiet English way, I could have been considered a sort of wayward catapult. Anyway, fate threw us together and I know I always did my very, very best for Christy and, God knows, he did his very best for me. I just had the most amazing confidence in him."

Another Englishman, Pat Ward-Thomas of The Guardian, was unashamedly in awe of O'Connor's talent. Writing in 1964, he observed: "He has had an exceptional flair for playing his beautifully free, natural, attacking golf when the highest rewards, in the ordinary tournament sense, were at stake . . . At his finest, there is a compelling quality about O'Connor's golf. Rarely, if ever, is it pawky or defensive. There is no one is these islands who is less daunted by the prospect of victory than he."

A great regret, of course, was that the coveted Open Championship eluded him. Yet his impact on the game was truly remarkable, not least for the longevity of his skills.

Tucked away in a room in my house is an unopened box of a dozen golf balls. When I called to his house last January, in the wake of Christy Junior's death, he insisted I took them as a gift.

I will miss him most as a man who was truly in love with golf.

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