Christy O’Connor didn’t subscribe to the view that his enormous success on the golf course was attributable to a natural God-given talent for the game.
He once told his nephew Christy Junior that “if being a natural golfer was the result of hitting thousands of golf balls, so be it”.
It was the great man’s way of underlining the many hours he spent on the practice grounds of golf courses throughout Ireland like Galway, Tuam, Bundoran, Killarney, and Royal Dublin, where he worked at one time or another as club professional, not to mention the thousands of iron shots he hit off the sand on Dollymount beach.
And yet the weight of the opinion stressed time and time again by his peers suggests that nobody could have swung a club as beautifully and naturally without the help of divine intervention.
Here’s just a sample of what they said about O’Connor, who passed away in the Mater Hospital early on Saturday morning, at the age of 91.
South Africa’s seven times major champion Gary Player: “Christy remains, with Sam Snead, the most naturally gifted golfer I have ever seen.”
Ryder Cup partner Peter Alliss: “There is no doubt about it, Christy O’Connor was one of the finest strikers of a golf ball I have ever seen.”
The great American golfer Lee Trevino: “Christy flows through the ball like fine wine.”
Known to many simply as “Himself” and invariably referred to as a “living legend”, he left an indelible mark on the game of golf. There is little doubt that he would have won a lot more tournaments and almost certainly several British Opens were it not for a certain fallibility with the putter. Few hit their drives as accurately. He was arguably the greatest iron player of them all.
But he simply didn’t sink the necessary quota of putts that his approach play merited. So he had to “settle” for 10 appearances in the Ryder Cup (a record until overtaken by Nick Faldo in 1997); winning the Canada (later World) Cup for Ireland with Harry Bradshaw in Mexico City in 1958; two Dunlop Masters, four Carrolls Internationals, ten Irish PGA Championships and in financial terms, the most lucrative of all, the first prize of £25,000 for the John Player Classic in 1970.
O’Connor grew up in Knocknacarra within a wedge shot of Galway Golf Club and looked the part of a future champion from the first time he picked up a club. Oddly enough, he was 23 in 1946 when apprenticed to professional Bob Wallace at Galway and as if to support his claim that it was hard work as much as natural ability that turned him into one of golf’s greatest, it was said of him that “in those formative years, Christy, through blood, sweat and toil, and the ever available advice from Wallace, he nurtured a rather ordinary swing into the free flowing motion that was to become the envy of every other professional”.
Many believe O’Connor’s greatest tournament win came in the Dunlop Masters at Portmarnock in 1959 when he shot a superb final round of 66. His good friend, the celebrated amateur Joe Carr, led him by four shots after 54 holes but was unable to live with Christy in such inspired form on the final day.
The closest he came to an Open victory was at Royal Lytham-St Annes in 1958 when a par four on the 72nd hole would have put him in a play-off with eventual winner Peter Thomson from Australia and David Thomas of Wales. But his drive trickled into one of the pot bunkers lining the left of the fairway and he finished one off the pace. There were other close calls, second again behind Thomson at Royal Birkdale in 1965; third Birkdale in 1961; fifth Muirfield, 1959; sixth Lytham, 1963 and St Andrews, 1964, and seventh Troon, 1973. Of all his record 10 Ryder Cup appearances, the most memorable was at Lindrick, Sheffield, in 1957, when he contributed handsomely to a rare success for Britain & Ireland, as the team was known at the time.
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