The death yesterday of Christy O’Connor Junior, one our most beloved golfers, brought to mind the shot heard round the world — but the Galway man was about much more than a two-iron at The Belfry. Junior carried his talents lightly and charmed everyone he met, writes Charlie Mulqueen.
THE DATE: Sunday, September 24, 1989. The scene: the 18th fairway, The Belfry in the English West Midlands. The occasion: the final day of the Ryder Cup. The players: Christy O’Connor Junior and Fred Couples.
The audience: the rival captains, Tony Jacklin (Europe) and Raymond Floyd (US), Prince Andrew of England, the players’ wives including Ann O’Connor and a number of privileged onlookers, including Charlie Mulqueen of the Examiner. Outside the ropes, 30,000 wildly-excited onlookers.
The last thing a journalist wants in these circumstances is to make eye contact with one of the players. So I kept well away from Christy as he followed his drive, a fine shot by any normal standards but in this case a good five clubs short of where the power-hitting American had deposited his drive.
However, once Christy saw his ball resting on a bare patch, he realised the golfing gods were on his side. It was the kind of lie he had grown up on at courses like Galway and Lahinch and ideal for the kind of two iron he had in mind.
But as he and caddy Matthew Byrne talked over his options, Christy was approached by Tony Jacklin who told him: “Just one more swing for Ireland, put it anywhere on the green and it will put huge pressure on him.” And so it came to pass, a thunderous roar greeting O’Connor’s ball as it pulled up five feet from the pin. A dumbfounded Couples pushes his nine iron approach and finishes 15 feet off the green. The multitude explode with excitement and if anything, the crescendo grew ever greater after Couples fails to get down in chip and putt and concedes hole and match.
Ann O’Connor was first to reach her husband, who later admitted he hardly had time to get the first five words of the Lord’s Prayer out and wave his hands to heaven in thanks for what he always described as “the most wonderful day of my life” before he was smothered from sight by a massive wave of delirious supporters. Thanks to Junior’s exploits, Europe were able to level the match 14-all and retain the Ryder Cup.
When it came to partying, there were few to touch Christy O’Connor Junior and his brothers. If anything, he mastered musical instruments more naturally than golf clubs.
That evening, teammates, opponents, friends and strangers watched and listened in awe as Christy and brothers, including fellow pro Eugene, belted out melody after melody on the spoons, accordion, piano and anything else that was handy. Denis Thatcher, husband of British prime minister Margaret, was one of those captivated by the spoons but Christy warned him “it’s very hard to get a pair in England in the right key”.
It is hardly any wonder that Christy regarded that as the greatest day of his life. But there were many, many others, like his breakthrough in the Carrolls Irish Open in 1975 after which he was also to capture the Martini International, the Sumrie Better Ball twice with his great friend Eamonn Darcy, the Jersey Open and perhaps most impressively of all the Dunhill British Masters in 1992, when he shot two rounds of 66 on the final day in the weather-disrupted event before making birdie at the first play-off hole against Tony Johnstone.
In his over 50 years, Christy went on to win the British Seniors Open on two occasions.
Christy revelled and rejoiced in all of those occasions and in many others as well. But I believe it is fair to say he never got ahead of himself. He was as friendly and accommodating to a person he had just met as he was to an old and dear friend and his smile and laughter brightened up every scene no matter where in the world he found himself.
Above all of this was Christy’s love of family. He was born in Knocknacarra, Galway, on August 19, 1948, to John O’Connor of Salthill and Elizabeth Noone from Riverstown, Sligo. They met at what was known at the time as a “Crossroads Dance” in Taylors Hill. John was an older brother of the famous Christy Senior and they farmed cattle and pigs and even cut their own turf.
As luck would have it, the O’Connor property virtually bordered Galway Golf Club and the O’Connors never missed a chance to jump the wall as dusk gathered and play as many holes as possible. All the time, Christy Senior, who was to prove a major influence on his career, was establishing a worldwide reputation as one of the game’s finest. Junior duly left the farming to any of his six brothers who might be interested and from an early age determined that he would be a professional golfer — and a very good one.
AFTER Galway, his professional career took off at South Shields, Newcastle, Co Durham, thanks to the influence of his mentor, the Galway professional, Bob Wallace. He was 17.
Stints followed at Royal Dublin with Uncle Christy and in Kennemer, Holland, before he had the great good fortune to be appointed full club professional at Carlow and meet his future wife, Ann O’Boyle, a nurse in the local hospital.
It was in Carlow that he devoted himself to developing his golf game to the standard we were to admire in future years and he always maintained that if there was any sign of slackening off that Ann immediately imposed the necessary disciplinary medicine!
The results were quickly forthcoming. Brother Eugene was appointed assistant pro at Carlow so that Christy could play the fledgling European Tour when it was officially launched in 1972. A fascinating and highly enjoyable career was under way.
In those days, the circuit was largely restricted to May through October but to try and put a few pounds away, Christy would take off for the Safari Tour in Africa with fellow Irishmen like Eamonn Darcy, Liam Higgins, John O’Leary, Eddie Polland, Jimmy Kinsella, Paddy McGuirk.
The stories from the events of those times made enthralling listening. O’Connor never had any difficulty in making friends and in 1990 in Kenya, as he filed his entry, he was invited along with wife Ann, daughter Ann and sons Nigel and Darren on a week-long safari. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the holiday of a lifetime.
Christy moved from Carlow to Shannon where he enjoyed life so much, that his golfing career went off the boil for a time.
But a stern talking to from close friends, Larry Walsh and Myles Murphy, changed all that and between this trio, they founded the Wings Golfing Society and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds and euros.
As Christy’s playing career gradually tapered off, he turned his attentions more and more to golf course design and he developed into one of the best in the business.
He was particularly proud of the beautiful Galway Bay in his native heath and among his other gems were Glasson, Esker Hills, Concra Wood, Headfort New, Knightsbrook, Palmerstown House, Mount Wolseley, Lee Valley, Fota Island, Roganstown and Rosslare and the Amendoeira resort in Portugal, where a bronze statue was erected immortalising that two iron. Also the Ritz Carlton in San Lucia and Budapest Gate.
Christy and Ann O’Connor were married in 1976 and Ann junior, Nigel and Darren followed over the next few years. They had moved to Kilcolgan near Galway but tragedy struck in September 1998 when Darren was killed in a motor accident not far from his home. Like the rest of the clan, Darren was a delightful person and the grief of all concerned can only be imagined. It’s a disaster that weighed heavily on them all over the years.
Now Christy himself has been taken from his family and friends.
All will grieve for the loss of a larger than life character while also sparing the odd moment to reflect on the great moments spent in the company of a fascinating man.
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