Friday 6 December 2019

'The saddest day in Irish golf' - legend Christy O'Connor Jnr passes away at just 67

Christy O'Connor Jnr, inset, after putting the winning shot at 1989 Ryder Cup
Christy O'Connor Jnr, inset, after putting the winning shot at 1989 Ryder Cup
Christy O'Connor Jnr pictured at Palmerstown House in Kildare

Liam Kelly

One of the biggest stars of Irish golf, Christy O'Connor Jnr, has been remembered as a gentleman and sporting inspiration after he died on holiday.

The 67-year-old from Galway was best remembered for helping Europe win the Ryder Cup at The Belfry in 1989 when he fired a stunning shot with his two iron to within a few feet of the 18th hole.

Watch below:

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny led a flood of tributes to the sporting icon.

"I knew Christy personally and he loved and lived life to the full. His premature passing will be a source of great sadness to many Irish people and all golfing fans in Ireland and across Europe," the Taoiseach said.

Christy O'Connor Junior has sadly passed away
Christy O'Connor Junior has sadly passed away

The President said: "As a sportsman, and as an iconic figure in golf, Christy represented his country and its people on the international stage with distinction, dignity and great humour."

O'Connor Jnr, who is survived by his wife Ann, son Nigel and daughter Ann, had been on holiday in Tenerife when he died in his sleep.

The golfer's other son, Darren, died in a road accident in 1998 aged 17.

Eamonn Darcy, who shared a dinner table with Christy just days ago, could barely speak as he described the death, at 67, of his great friend as “the saddest day in Irish golf that I can remember".

And Paul McGinley, the winning captain from the 2014 Ryder Cup, said O'Connor was "a true Irishman, character and golfer".

The Golf Union of Ireland paid tribute by posting a clip of the memorable shot online and a note describing him as "a gentleman, an iconic figure of Irish golf and a true ambassador".

"He was a pioneer for professional Irish golfers and inspired a generation of players," the organisation said.

O'Connor Jnr's famous 220 yard shot on to 18th green to win at The Belfry is an image that has pride of place in the minds of all Irish golf and sport fans.

Read more: Remembering Christy O'Connor Junior: 'His heart was Par 5 in dimension'

Up against the world number one at the time, Fred Couples, and the oldest man in Team Europe, O'Conner Jnr had been written off by large sections of the media before he took to the course that day.

Among his other wins were the Irish Open in 1975 and the Dunhill British Masters in 1992.

Elsewhere, after joining the over-50s ranks, O'Connor Jnr won by three-shots in the 1999 Senior Open Championship at Royal Portrush before returning to Northern Ireland a year later to successfully defend the title at Royal County Down.

He also lifted two titles on the Champions Tour in America in 1999.

Among his famous course designs are Shane Lowry's home golf course Esker Hills, Co Offaly, and the world number 21 said: ''Very sad news today about Christy O'Connor Jnr. An absolute legend of Irish golf. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and loved ones.''

Former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley said: ''This is a terribly sad day for Christy's family, obviously, but also for all of Ireland and lovers of golf worldwide."

McGinley enjoyed dinner in Dublin with O'Connor Jnr and other big names from Irish golf before Christmas.

''We had a great night, full of memories, full of stories and full of good old Irish craic and laughs, and it is the laughter and fun that I will remember most about Christy.," he said.

Tony Jacklin, the former Ryder Cup captain, who picked O'Connor Jnr as a wildcard in 1989 after controversially leaving him out in 1985, recalled the magical finish to retain the trophy.

"Looking back, it was very hard not to pick Christy for the 1985 Ryder Cup team but Jose Rivero had won on The Belfry that year so it was obviously a decision based purely on golf. But we were delighted to have him on the team in 1989 and I remember he was very excited when I told him."

Read more: In Pictures: A nostalgic look at Christy O'Connor Junior's memorable career

Jacklin added: "Christy hit a wonderful tee shot and then Fred pulled his, but because he was so long he cleared the water, leaving himself with a nine iron, while Christy had a two iron. I said to Christy, 'Come on, one more good swing for Ireland' and of course he hit the shot of his lifetime. We couldn't have retained it without him, no doubt.

"He had a great effect on the team room too. We had a great team unity and he was a big part of that."

O'Connor Jnr was a supporter of Special Olympics and the Irish branch of the organisation described him as one of Ireland's greatest ever talents and a dedicated patron.

George O'Grady, European Tour chief executive from 2004-2015, said: "Christy Jnr was a legendary figure and his immense legacy is far more than purely his playing record.

"He was a universally popular player and always enhanced every tournament he played, no matter the occasion. His infectious charm will be sorely missed."

Ken Schofield, European Tour executive director from 1975-2004, said: "Much more so for everyone involved with the tour and the game of golf, Christy will be remembered as a gentleman spirit - every amateur golfer's dream as the perfect pro-am partner, on and off the golf course."

PGA chief executive Sandy Jones said: "He was an outstanding player and also an Irishman who won the Irish Open, so he had a good career including playing in two Ryder Cups 14 years apart, which was an amazing feat, but more than that he was a really nice guy.

"I knew him quite well and did a few dinners with him and always enjoyed his company. The great thing about him was that he always had a laugh and a smile on his face and was a legendary figure of Irish golf."

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