Tuesday 12 November 2019

Reeling in the Open years

Special Olympics Golfer Paul Kirrane from Ennis, Co Clare, pictured with Christy O'Connor Jr, CEO Gary Desmond, Special Olympics CEO Matt English and Eamonn Coghlan at the unveiling of Team Ireland's golf squad for the World Games (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE)
Special Olympics Golfer Paul Kirrane from Ennis, Co Clare, pictured with Christy O'Connor Jr, CEO Gary Desmond, Special Olympics CEO Matt English and Eamonn Coghlan at the unveiling of Team Ireland's golf squad for the World Games (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE)

Liam Kelly

Open season beckons the elite of the golfing world with the Irish Open, US Open and British Open championships the highlights of May, June, and July for Rory McIlroy & Co.

The Irish Open at Royal County Down and the British Open being played at St Andrews have special resonance for former Tour star Christy O'Connor Junior.

Forty years ago, Carrolls revived the Irish Open at Woodbrook and Junior won the title from an impressive field which included Tom Watson.

Thirty years ago, at Royal St George's in Sandwich, came the Open Championship that to this day brings a pang of regret as 'the one that got away' from O'Connor.

Fifteen years ago, in the year 2000, came the first of his two British Senior Open Championships at Royal Portrush.

And one year later, Christy followed that up by retaining the title at Royal County Down, venue for this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open from May 28-31.


A host of memories, then, to touch on as we met on Saturday at Carton House, where a six-figure sponsorship by convenience store retail group Gala was announced for the Special Olympics Team Ireland participation at the World Summer Games in Los Angeles next July.

First, to that 1985 performance at Sandwich where, but for some errant putting - "I took 37 putts in the last round, way too many" - Christy Junior and not Pádraig Harrington would have become the first Irish golfer to lift the Claret Jug since Fred Daly in 1947.

The man from Knocknacarra, Co Galway, caused a sensation in round one by setting a course record 64. Sir Henry Cotton had set the previous mark at 65, after which Dunlop brought out the famous 'Dunlop 65' golf ball as a tribute to Cotton's achievement.

By tee-off time in round four, the destination of the 1985 championship was wide open with a host of players in contention, including Christy who was three shots off the pace set by David Graham and Bernhard Langer.

Paired with Sandy Lyle, the Irishman felt confident at the start of play on the last day, but by close of play, he finished joint third in a group of six, two shots adrift of winner Lyle, and one behind Payne Stewart, who came second.

"Losing that Open was the lowest point outside of death for me.

"I wanted to win it for Senior (his uncle Christy), for the family, for myself of course, and I had it in my hands to do so.

"I thought I was good enough to win it. I felt great, I had no nerves, but I couldn't make a putt. I had 37 putts in the last round.

"That was my best chance of winning the Open. It's a tournament I love and it would have been fantastic to win it, but it wasn't to be," he recalled.

Christy will forever be remembered as 'the man who won the 1989 Ryder Cup' with that fabulous two-iron shot to the 18th at The Belfry, and deservedly so.

On a personal basis, he would view the two Senior British Opens in 2000 and 2001 as right up there with the best of his tournament victories, although he recalls a big pang of regret that his son Darren, who died in a car accident in 1998, was not there to share the family's joy at the achievement.

"They were superb, but there was something missing. I had lost my son. That was brutal and to have won the Senior Open, I felt guilty. My other kids were there and ran onto the green on both occasions, which was lovely, but Darren wasn't there, and that was tough.

"From a purely golfing perspective, I was of course, delighted to have won the Seniors Open twice. It's a huge tournament. My name is on that Cup, and it's on there to stay forever," said Christy.

His victory at Royal County Down in 2001 owed much to Christy's affinity with links golf, and he warns the Tour stars who will play in the Irish Open from to be ready for a completely novel seaside golfing experience.


"The big thing about the golfers of today is they all like to 'go for it.' They just don't know about lay up.

"Well, I think they're going to have to learn how to lay the ball up at Royal County Down.

"G-Mac (Graeme McDowell and Rory have to have a massive chance.

"Knowing this golf course, more than any other course, could be worth over the week maybe up to six shots. The wind is going to be a massive factor, because you can hit a nine-iron in the morning to a hole and hit a driver in the afternoon to the same hole.

"Royal County Down is going to be a wonderful test of golf. It's great the tournament is going to be played there," said Christy.

St Andrews is another course with special memories for the former Ryder Cup star.

Forty-five years ago, O'Connor played alongside Jack Nicklaus on the Old Course for two rounds en route to the Golden Bear claiming his second British Open.

Their friendship has grown in the decades since 1970, so much so that Nicklaus is making a special trip to play in Christy's Celeb-Am at Galway Bay GC on July 6 in aid of Galway Hospice. "It's a tremendous gesture by Jack," Christy added.


Special Olympians are 'great ambassadors for Ireland,' says Christy

Special Olympics is a cause dear to Christy Junior's heart and he was joined by former Olympian and World 5,000m champion Senator Eamonn Coghlan to meet and offer advice to the Team Ireland golfers.

Afterwards Christy paid tribute to the participants and the volunteers who make it all possible for Ireland to be represented at the World Summer Games in July.

"I love the enthusiasm of these golfers. They know why they're there and it's clear they'll be trying their very best to win medals. They're so proud of the green, white and gold, and that makes me proud.

"It's great for them to march under the Irish banner,.

"They're competitive and they're great ambassadors for Ireland.

"I would also like to commend the golf clubs all over the country, and their coaches and the volunteers who have opened up golf to Special Olympic athletes," he said.

The golfing squad among the 88-member Irish team for the LA event is: Margaret Carr from Sligo, Rosemary O'Reilly from Meath; Cork's Trudy Hyland, Paul Kirrane (Ennis), Oliver Doherty (Buncrana), Leo Brien (Rathdrum, Co Wicklow), Jill Connery (Armagh).

Patrick Rutherford (Ennis) and Ursula McDonnell from Belfast will also join the team as playing partners, and they will be paired with athletes in the foursomes team competition.

A total of 7,000 Special Olympic athletes from 77 countries will compete in LA from July 23-August 2.

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