Sport Golf

Sunday 18 February 2018

Obituary: Christy O'Connor Jnr

Much-loved Irish golfer was held in high esteem for his talent and zest for life, writes Dermot Gilleece

Win: Christy smiles at the 1989 Ryder Cup. Photo: ©INPHO
Win: Christy smiles at the 1989 Ryder Cup. Photo: ©INPHO

Dermot Gilleece

In May 2000, two months before he retained the Senior British Open title at Royal Co Down, Christy O'Connor Jnr was installed as the 22nd Freeman of Galway, following directly behind Hillary Clinton and John Hume. It was a measure of the esteem in which he was held in his native place, through a golfing career which hardly did justice to the depth of his considerable talent.

His passing last Wednesday, while on a family holiday in Tenerife, came as a shock to his many friends and admirers, at the age of 67. And he will be remembered for very special tournament contributions; for admirable skill as a golf-course designer and most of all for a wonderful zest for life, even in the face of profound tragedy.

He had to endure the death of his 17-year-old son, Darren, in a road accident in 1998 which, by his own admission, left "a huge hole" in his life. Yet he refused to be broken, opting instead to talk openly about the pain for himself and his family, which they confronted on a daily basis.

Having learned his craft as an apprentice to his illustrious uncle, Christy Senior, at Royal Dublin, Junior, as he came to be known, began to make his own way in the tournament world with victory in the Zambia Open in 1974. Then came a memorable triumph in the revived Irish Open at Woodbrook in 1975, followed by a Ryder Cup appearance in the US.

Two years later, he gained the distinction of becoming the first Irish professional to compete in the US Masters, and though he missed the cut, it remained a significant milestone in his career.

It was not until the mid-1980s, however, that he began to reach his full potential. That was when his aptitude for the big occasion produced a stunning first round to the 1985 Open Championship at Royal St George's, where he set a course-record of 64. The effort was especially memorable for seven successive birdies from the fourth to the 10th and for a total of 10 birdies in all.

He eventually finished third to Sandy Lyle and might well have made an even stronger challenge for the title, but for a fragile putting stroke. Indeed it is ironic that some of his best efforts seemed to be blighted by frailty with the blade, just as his uncle Christy had experienced, decades earlier.

Meanwhile, another big occasion beckoned in 1989 when he became a surprise wild-card choice by European skipper Tony Jacklin for the Ryder Cup matches at The Belfry. Jacklin was convinced he had the right candidate after watching O'Connor complete a final round of 67 in the German Open, the last qualifying event.

Junior's big moment came in a singles match against America's Fred Couples on the Sunday. And as he stood on the 18th fairway, facing a daunting second shot of 229 yards over water, Jacklin urged him: "OK Christy, let's have one more shot for Ireland. Hit that on the green and see what happens."

It proved to be the shot of a lifetime. When O'Connor's ball came to rest only four feet from the hole, Couples was so unnerved that he missed the green completely with no more than a nine iron. In a way, it now seems an injustice to O'Connor that his career, for many people, was defined by that one shot. But that's what happened, largely due to wonderfully heart-warming television images, which included a congratulatory hug from his wife, Ann.

After his son's death, he sought comfort on the fairways of the Champions Tour in the US, where he enjoyed remarkable success with two tournament victories in 1999, ending the year there with earnings of US$710,729.

Then there was the considerable bonus of victory in the 1999 Senior British Open at Royal Portrush and his repeat win at Royal Co Down the following year.

His chance of going for three-in-a-row in 2001 was scuppered in March of that year by a freak motorcycle accident at the family home at Clarinbridge, resulting in a broken leg.

Though he made a full physical recovery, he never regained the competitive touch of three spectacular seasons around the Millennium.

Meanwhile, a measure of his popularity at home and abroad was the reaction of friends and colleagues to that set-back. Jack Nicklaus took time off during the US Masters in April to phone him and see how he was doing. And two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton spent a few days with him after playing in the Senior British Open in July.

There were huge get-well cards from the US - one signed by his playing colleagues, another signed by the caddies, and a third signed by sponsors. And poignantly, there was one from Seve Ballesteros with the terse message: "If you give up golf, you give up me."

Such warmth shouldn't surprise us for a man whose generous spirit almost invariably sent people away smiling.

Our sympathy to his wife Ann, his son Nigel and daughter Ann. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Sunday Independent

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