Bernard Gallacher leads tributes to Christy O’Connor Jnr

Christy O'Connor Jnr retains Ryder Cup by beating Fred Couples of the USA at The Belfry. Picture: Simon  Bruty/Allsport
Christy O'Connor Jnr retains Ryder Cup by beating Fred Couples of the USA at The Belfry. Picture: Simon Bruty/Allsport
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Bernard Gallacher, a team-mate in Christy O’Connor Jnr’s first Ryder Cup appearance and Tony Jacklin’s vice-captain in the other, joined the flood of tributes for the popular Irishman yesterday following his death at the age of 67.

Hailed as an “absolute legend of Irish golf”, O’Connor Jnr emerged from the shadow of his uncle - Christy O’Connor Snr - to win four times on the European Tour before also claiming back-to-back victories on home soil in the Senior Open Championship.

It was in the Ryder Cup, however, that the Galway man created his legacy in the same way Welshman Jamie Donaldson did in the 2014 match at Gleneagles as he secured victory for Europe with a moment of magic. But, while Donaldson had a wedge in his hand as he hit a 146-yard approach at the 15th on the PGA Centenary Course to a foot as he beat Keegan Bradley, the club that saw O’Connor Jnr etch his name in the event’s folklore was a 2-iron. A surprise wild card for the 1989 match at The Belfry - his debut had come 14 years earlier on a Great Britain & Ireland side that lost 21-11 at Laurel Valley - O’Connor Jnr was a heavy underdog in the last-day singles against Fred Couples before the American went on to become world No 1 and win the 1992 Masters.

However, with the match all square on the 18th hole, O’Connor Jnr fired a brilliant approach to within four feet of the flag, his subsequent one-hole victory win helping ensure the biennial contest finished 14-14, with holders Europe therefore retaining the trophy.

“I was standing very close to Christy when he hit that 2-iron,” recalled Gallacher. “He could see that Fred Couples only had a 9-iron or wedge to the green for his second. But he hit a glorious shot and that completely put Fred off as he missed the green on the right and ended up conceding the hole as a result of what was one of the great shots in the Ryder Cup.

“Christy knew he was under pressure against one of their best players. I was vice captain for that match and Tony Jacklin needed him to do something. He didn’t let us down because that shot secured a drawn match and all credit to him.”

Fourteen years earlier, Gallacher, Brian Barnes and Norman Wood were all among O’Connor Jnr’s team-mates as he was used by Bernard Hunt in only two matches at Laurel Valley, where a home side team led by Arnold Palmer overpowered their opponents.

“Christy Jnr lived in Christy O’Connor Snr’s shadow for a while. As Christy Snr was a legend in Ireland, being compared to him all the time must have been difficult. But Christy Jnr had a good year in 1975, when he won the Irish Open to get in the Ryder Cup team,” added Gallacher. “That may not have been a memorable experience for him but what happened in 1989 certainly made up for that disappointment.

“He played better golf as he got older. He was always a good swinger of the club. His golf stayed with him, a bit like Colin Montgomerie. He had a good seniors’ career, winning a couple of times in America and also the Senior Open 

Among the tributes on social media yesterday was one recalling that O’Connor Jnr had taught the great Seve Ballesteros how to “play the spoons” as they waited for a flight.

“Christy was the jovial and genial type who loved life,” noted Gallacher of a man who, like him, combined being a club professional with playing in tournaments at stages in their careers. “He enjoyed a pint of Guinness, he enjoyed a sing-song and he enjoyed playing the spoons. He’d have a knees up at any moment of the day. He was very Irish in that respect.

“He was a real pro. He turned pro about 1967-68 and learned his craft as a club pro. He was like me in that respect. Indeed, our careers were quite similar and there were times he didn’t get to events due to the fact he was too busy at the club.”

In addition to his four European Tour title triumphs, O’Connor Jnr also came close to winning the Scottish Open, losing in a play-off to fellow Irishman David Feherty in that also involved Australian Ian Baker-Finch at Haggs Castle in 1986. His best performance in the Open Championship was finishing joint-third behind Sandy Lyle at Royal St George’s in 1985.

In his latter years, O’Connor Jnr was heavily involved in designing golf courses. It is understood he was on holiday in Tenerife when he died. He is survived by his wife Ann, son Nigel and daughter Ann. “This is a terribly sad day for Christy’s family, obviously, but also for all of Ireland and lovers of golf worldwide,” said 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. “Just before Christmas I had a wonderful night out in Dublin with Christy and some of the older Irish pros, and it is the laughter and fun that I will remember most about Christy.”