Christy O’Connor jnr, professional golfer.
Born: 19 August, 1948, in Galway, Ireland.
Died: 6 January, 2016, in Tenerife, Canary Islands, aged 67.
For many, Christy O’Connor’s career will always be synonomous with his “miracle shot” to the 18th green in the 1989 Ryder Cup at the Belfry to defeat then world No 1 Fred Couples and pave the way for Europe to retain the trophy.
However O’Connor himself thought he played a better shot the following year in the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews. Once again his opponent was Couples. On the 17th, O’Connor struck a magnificent four iron over the famous Road Hole bunker to within four feet of the pin. Couples conceded, tying a hanky to the end of his club and waving it in the air in mock surrender while exclaiming “he had never seen the equal of it.” Perhaps it was the better shot but considerably less significant.
To understand fully the dramatic finale to that 1989 Belfry encounter one has to go back to 1985. That year O’Connor thought with some justification that he was a certainty to be one of captain Tony Jacklin’s three picks, having just missed out on automatic qualification by some £100 in terms of the money list. He had finished an excellent third in the Open at Sandwich and was in form. Despite that Jacklin did not pick him, leaving O’Connor “devastated”. It caused a rift in their relationship that lingered till 1989. Again O’Connor narrowly missed automatic qualification but this time Jacklin did choose him as one of his picks, easing the mutual tension .But his selection did not please everyone particularly among the press whose views put extra pressure on the Irishman.
The situation was not eased when on the second day at the Belfry he and fellow Irishman Ronan Rafferty lost their foursomes tie. And then prior to the last day’s singles he and his wife saw newspaper headlines over breakfast proclaiming “O’Connor weak link in Europe team.”
This ratcheted up the pressure a further notch for his tie against Couples. It was evenly contested to the 18th where they stood all square on the last tee. Couples unleashed a mammoth drive with O’Connor well behind him and 230 yards short of the green lying beyond a stretch of water. Jacklin exhorted him that if he landed it on the green he would win the hole and to give it “one more swing for Ireland”. As they say, the rest is history, as O’Connor smacked a two iron with pinpoint accuracy to within three feet of the pin.Couples,rattled,fouled his approach shot into a bunker and conceded the hole and the tie. This sparked off the never to be forgotten scenes of a highly emotional O’Connor being embraced by his wife Ann and Jacklin as spectators spontaneously combusted.
When interviewed later he commented that the newspaper headlines “made him stronger and even more determined to beat Couples” and some members of the press apologised to him for their stance. It was so different from his previous Ryder Cup appearance in 1975 at Laurel Valley, Pennsylvania, which ended in two defeats in the fourballs and foursomes and a convincing American win.
Throughout his career he had a considerable measure of success, winning four times on the European PGA Tour, twice winning the British Seniors Open, twice winning on the American Seniors’ Tour, representing Ireland several times in the World Cup and a number of high finishes in the European Order of Merit over many seasons.
By his own admission he could have done even better had he been more consistently committed to the pursuit of success.
He was a popular and gregarious fellow not averse to a refreshment and for a period into the early 1980s the socialising took precedence over the golf resulting in the loss of his player’s card for five years. But he pulled it together and thereafter struck an acceptable balance between leisure and golf.
With his uncle being the famous Christy O’Connor, the sport was in his genes and it gave him particular pleasure to follow Christy Sr. into the Ryder Cup in 1975 after his uncle’s final appearance of ten consecutive in 1973.
Brought up in a farming family in Knocknacarra, Galway he became a professional aged 17 spending periods as assistant in South Shields, then with his uncle at Royal Dublin followed by a spell in Holland before becoming professional at Carlow in Ireland. Aged 22 he embarked on a tournament career recording his first win in 1973 in the Carroll’s Irish match play championship. Latterly he was also successfully involved in course design, particularly in Ireland but also in Europe.
Many fulsome and touching tributes have been paid to him from the world of golf while his outstanding charity work and philanthropy also attracted many tributes.
His funeral in Galway Cathedral was attended by almost 2,000 including Irish President Michael O’Higgins and Irish Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley who said afterwards, “It’s a sad day for Ireland, he was a character much loved and I’ll miss the fun.”
He is survived by wife Ann, son Nigel and daughter Ann, son Darren having predeceased him.