Tuesday 23 January 2018

Fond memories of Himself at game's top table

Christy O'Connor
Christy O'Connor

Great golfing minds on the top table considered the question from the floor. One of them suggested that John Jacobs was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame. "No," said Peter Alliss, "it's Christy O'Connor. And I'd generally back myself on anything to do with Christy."

The voice of golf positively beamed when informed that Himself would be celebrating his 88th birthday a few days later. A double-snowman, you might say. But it transpired that the oldest survivor in an exclusive club is Australia's Kel Nagle, who, remarkably, shares his birthday with O'Connor and was 92 on Friday.

The occasion was last week's European Tour Golfer of the Year Luncheon in London where, as a very special hors d'oeuvre, we had the announcement of Colin Montgomerie and Ken Schofield among the latest inductees into the Hall of Fame. O'Connor, of course, became a member in 2009 and Alliss joined him last year.

There was also the entirely predictable announcement of Rory McIlroy as the Tour's Golfer of the Year. And to top off the proceedings, the late-developing Roger Chapman was conferred with honorary life membership.

McIlroy is among those who has benefited greatly from the contribution of these individuals to the development of tournament golf on this side of the Atlantic. And nobody was more involved than Schofield, who guided the fortunes of an embryonic European Tour in 1975 until his retirement eight years ago.

"To be joining such people as Christy in the Hall of Fame is a great privilege," said the Scot, who had the final say in bringing the 2006 Ryder Cup to this country. "My first sight of Himself was in 1960 at a tournament at Gleneagles where I went as an eager 14-year-old from rural Perthshire.

"I was there because I wanted to see Christy, just as I had travelled to Gleneagles two years previously to see Peter Alliss. They were the stars of golf; my sporting heroes. They and their contemporaries were the link to Tony Jacklin who spearheaded the modern game.

"Golf owes Christy a huge debt because I'm sure he must have inspired many, not just in Ireland but throughout these islands and beyond. Great ball-striking and natural strength gave him a very imposing presence on a golf course. The general view when I was growing up was he and Neil (Coles) were the best of the touring golfers from these parts until Jacklin's arrival."

With his familiar bald pate and grey fringe, Coles has changed little in 40 years, except to look more and more like the great British comedy actor, Alastair Sim. He remembered the Ryder Cup at St Louis in 1971, when he and O'Connor in the first match off the tee gained a memorable foursomes victory over Billy Casper and Miller Barber.

"Christy was remarkable for the way he could move the golf ball," said Coles. "I enjoyed his company. He could have won the Open Championship more than once, but putting was always a problem for him. If he'd putted like the guys do today, I'm sure he'd have won a lot more.

"When I talked to him once about lasting skills, he told me I'd be okay until I was 70. After that, forget it. The way things turned out, I had begun drifting out of the game when I got prostate cancer at 72. So it seemed the right time to stop. I haven't played since and I'm now 78.

"I always felt I had put one over on him by winning the Carrolls at Little Island in 1965. I remember the second-last hole, with out of bounds on one side and further trouble on the other and my caddie asking me: 'Do you want to know how you're doing?' And I instructed him not to tell me until we got through 17. As we headed for the final tee, he said: 'You're nine in front'." Coles laughed heartily at the memory. He won the Carrolls again in 1971 at Woodbrook, only to be succeeded the following year by O'Connor, capturing it for a fourth time.

It's hard to credit Himself being around since the year Bobby Jones eventually won the US Amateur at the seventh attempt. The year 1924 was also when Walter Hagen won the first of what would become a record four successive USPGA titles while launching a period of extended American dominance of the British Open.

It was with hickory-shafted clubs, discarded by local professional Pat Quinn, that young Christopher took his first, tentative swings at a game he would grace with rare distinction. Those skills were first unveiled to an international audience at Royal Portrush in the 1951 Open when, as a 26-year-old attached to the Tuam club, he claimed a share of 17th place behind Max Faulkner with none other than Nagle.

Back at lunch, Chapman mischievously greeted the announcement of his honorary membership by exclaiming: "Bugger, I've just paid my subs." Mind you, money is no longer a concern for the 53-year-old Kenyan-born Englishman, given his stunning victories on the US Champions Tour. He won the Senior PGA Championship last May, followed by the US Senior Open seven weeks later, for combined prize money of $878,000.

"When I turned pro at the end of 1981, one of my first outings was in the Trinidad and Tobago Pro-Am," recalled the player with 619 European tour appearances to his credit. "I happened to play with Christy who proceeded to hit shots I could hardly credit. I had a pretty good pedigree as an amateur (English Amateur and Lytham Trophy) and here I was playing with a veteran with magical hands who was hitting drivers around coconut trees at Tobago Golf Club.

"I honestly questioned if I had done the right thing by turning pro. He outscored me on that occasion and I'm thinking that if I can't beat a guy of 57, what am I doing out here? That is my first recollection of Christy.

"Eighteen years later, he was watching me on the range at Ballybunion during the 2000 Irish Open. I had made my tour breakthrough earlier that year by winning in Brazil and as I walked off the practice ground, Christy came over and said in that soft accent of his: 'Roger, you're swinging great. Just keep doing what you're doing'."

Adorned with a photograph of McIlroy and the stunning trophies from The Race to Dubai, the lunch menu promised only fine food. What followed, however, was the unheralded delight of shared memories about great men, present and past.

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