Sport Golf

Saturday 24 February 2018

Vincent Hogan on Christy Jnr: Legendary two-iron a snapshot of a life well-lived

Christy O’Connor Jnr with wife Ann and family
Christy O’Connor Jnr with wife Ann and family
European captain Tony Jacklin congratulates Christy O'Connor Jnr after his emotional putt to win the Ryder Cup in 1989. Photo: Getty Images
Christy O'Connor Snr with his nephew Christy O'Connor Jnr. Photo: Frank McGrath
Christy O'Connor Jnr
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

That two iron. Those tears. The great, rolling cascade of emotion from everybody around him.

Maybe it's unfair that Christy O'Connor Junior became defined by a single golf shot struck in the English midlands almost three decades ago. But, all these years later, just look at the pictures.

You see those arms out-stretched towards the heavens as if, at that moment, he believes he is walking across a rainbow and it's clear that that's pretty much as good as sport can be.

His crying sets off those around him. And he falls into their embrace, exultant but physically empty.

Read more: Farewell to hero of the Ryder Cup who earned his share of glory

"Junior", of course, did a lot more in a life so sadly cut short now at the age of 67. He won 17 golf tournaments in seven different countries.

He designed more than 30 courses. But in 1989, he turned the Ryder Cup into a movie.

If we cannot understand the physics of striking an iron 235 yards over water to within four feet of a pin, we can at least imagine the character it took to do so in such circumstance.

The media believed he'd be hopelessly out of his depth against Freddie Couples, one newspaper pencilling it down as a certain US point. Christy admitted this left him feeling "terrible".

Context is important to what happened then. Fourteen years earlier, he'd played his only other Ryder Cup match under a cloud of knowing his selection had prevented his famous uncle, Christy Senior, from making what would have been a record 11th appearance.

Back then, the Ryder Cup seemed little more than an American benefit. They'd never lost a match and never would until The Belfry in '85. Then Christy's shot helped secure the draw that would keep the cup in Europe.

But it did much more than that. It sold the game to a generation of young players as the underdog's emotional victory threw an element of fairytale into the narrative.

Golf had been full of intense, regimented souls when Christy turned professional in 1967. But he followed the template of his uncle, declaring a life well-lived to be as important as a game well-played.

He liked a pint. He was a wonderful raconteur. He loved the game, but never at the expense of a sense of humour. This gave him a human touch in a profession that could seem innately stuffy and self-regarding.

Remember Padraig Harrington was just 18 that day Christy Junior won at The Belfry. Darren Clarke was 21, Paul McGinley 22.

Three years later, when O'Connor finished leading Irishman on the PGA Tour ahead of a second-placed Ronan Rafferty, the hottest young gun on the scene was Dungannon's Clarke.

Read more: Open Championship 1985 - the one that got away from Irish icon

So the era of Christy Junior and Eamonn Darcy and John O'Leary begat that of Philip Walton, Rafferty and David Feherty which, in turn, begat Clarke, Harrington, McGinley and - ultimately - the Rory McIlroys, Graeme McDowells and Shane Lowrys of today.

Of course, the gods that Christy Junior thanked so tearfully at The Belfry in 1989 could not protect him nine years later from the wretchedness of losing a son.

He often spoke beautifully afterwards of who and what he thought Darren might have become, had a car crash not thieved him from this life when just 17.

Yet, he never let himself sink into the bottomless pit of melancholy that nightmare surely presented. Instead, he and wife Ann talked of Darren's continued presence.

"I got great comfort, him beside me, pacing the fairways," he once said. "You never forget. You wouldn't want to forget. It seems better to live with, if that's the right word. As far as we're concerned, he's there with us and that's a huge thing."

Christy's own father had passed away from a heart attack in 1985, the year "Junior" fell just over £100 short of automatic Ryder Cup selection and was then overlooked by captain Tony Jacklin. That summer, he had tied third for The Open Championship at Royal St George's behind Sandy Lyle. His game would taper badly through the mid-nineties and only came back to him grudgingly thereafter.

Read more: Christy will be missed by all who knew him - and many who didn't

But his course design reflected his grasp of reality. He understood the pomposity in so many new courses - challenges and yardages suited only to professionals or exceptional amateurs. O'Connor said he always had a 15 or 16-handicapper in mind when picturing a golf hole. His courses became playable to all.

He may not be remembered as Ireland's greatest golfer.

But he might, legitimately, go down as the best loved. Because Christy Junior radiated character, colour and an inordinate human resilience. Fourteen days after surviving a helicopter crash in '92, he became the first Irishman to collect a six-figure cheque on the European Tour by winning the British Masters.

There's now a plaque at The Belfry beside the spot from which he struck that extraordinary two-iron.

Great lakes of money were subsequently raised for charity on the back of auctions for the club, before it disappeared one night from a hotel room, never to be recovered.

But it's not a golfer being grieved today, simply a palpably decent Irishman.

Christy Junior hated being described as "nice" because he didn't see the quality as an achievement of any kind. "Being nice is not a gift," he said.

In his case, gloriously, neither was it a chore.

Shot that secured a place in history

It was the shot that changed the fortunes of one of Ireland's best-loved golfers.

Christy O'Connor Jnr went into the singles match at the 1989 Ryder Cup as the underdog to American Fred Couples.

But his stunning two-iron on the 18th hole at the Belfry gave Europe the vital point needed to retain the trophy, and sparked a torrent of emotion. O'Connor hit the shot from 235 yards over water to just four feet from the pin, raising his hands to the heavens as he secured a place in history.

Senator Terry Brennan met Couples just a few months later. "He told me it was the best shot he had ever seen under so much pressure," the Senator recalled.

Irish Independent

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