Ryder Cup hero Christy O’Connor Jr dies aged 67
One of Ireland’s favourite sons, Christy O’Connor Jr, has died suddenly in Spain aged 67.
It is understood he passed away while on holiday with his wife in Tenerife.
The nephew of Irish golfing legend Christy O’Connor senior, he was born in Galway and turned professional in 1967.
He won four European titles, and played in two Ryder Cups – in 1975 and then 1989, where his two-iron approach on the 18th at the Belfry gave him victory over Fred Couples and secured the trophy.
O’Connor then embarked upon a successful seniors career, winning the Seniors British Open title in 1999 and 2000.
Later in his life O’Connor turned his attentions towards course design, for which he gained a outstanding reputation as he lent his expertise to 18 courses within Ireland and a number of others worldwide.
Below you can read his poignant final interview, recorded with National Club Golfer in December.
. . .
As time ticks on, Christy O’Connor’s wonder shot slips down the pecking order of the Ryder Cup’s greatest shots. It’s just the nature of things.
The facts, though, will never change. The Irishman made his debut in 1975, where he lost both his matches, before then getting a captain’s pick from Tony Jacklin 14 years later.
At The Belfry he was left on the sidelines on the Friday, lost in the foursomes alongside his big mate Eamonn Darcy and then found himself, in the seventh match out, in the thick of a very tight battle against the world No 1 Fred Couples. After 17 holes the two of them were all square with the American in plum position on the final fairway after a gargantuan, hooking drive.
Back in the distance stood O’Connor Jr, debating whether to hit 5-wood or the 2-iron. Thanks to his caddy he settled on the latter and he struck a shot that should still leave a lump in the throat of any European golf fan.
From 231 yards O’Connor Jr knocked it to less than four feet before a stunned Couples fanned one way right. The BBC’s commentator Bruce Critchley welled up.
O’Connor Jr just about held it together before his putt, which would have been for a 66, was conceded and Europe retained the trophy after a 14-14 draw. When you’ve got five minutes spare, watch it on YouTube – you’ll love it.
. . .
I was the first Irish pro to play Augusta. After one round and eight holes I was the only player under par; then I had something like two nines at 13 and 15″ I now live in Killaloe in Co Clare and my time is divided between doing a lot of course remodelling, a lot of company days and getting the odd game of golf. I have worked on around 30 courses, they all have something to offer.
My favourite course in Ireland is Lahinch, inland it would be Adare Manor which I believe JP McManus has great plans for. It is fantastic to have the Open back at Portrush, it is beautiful and there will be some amazing camerawork.
Portrush is wonderful news, everybody is over the moon.
. . .
I was the first Irish pro to play Augusta in 1977 – not the first Irishman, the first Irish pro. After one round and eight holes I was the only player under par, Watson and Nicklaus were level.
I then had disastrous holes at 13 and 15, I fell into the trap and went for the green with wooden clubs and that’s not that easy. I had something like two nines so missed the cut.
The greens were treacherous, you could hardly walk on them they were so fast. If you were above the hole you would three putt. I had a practice round with Seve, it was his debut also.
I remember sitting in the bar. Tom Weiskopf came in and said ’you won’t find anyone in here, it’s not like Europe, they’re all out practising’ and we had a beer, just one though.
I didn’t play in any US Opens or PGAs, I could have played in them but didn’t go. The conditions were so different and the way I looked at it you had to spend some time there to get used to the courses. What’s the point if you’re not in with a shout to win?
. . .
My swing was like a steady rock. It was a three-quarter swing but I was a very good driver. Ninety per cent of the time I was on the fairway. They they say drive for show and putt for dough. I think you also drive for dough.
I stayed away from gurus. If they’re that good why didn’t they do it themselves? When I see practice grounds full on Wednesdays it’s ridiculous. If you don’t bring it with you you’re not going to find it there.
Often a coach is working with two guys who are leading the tournament and he is telling both of them they are going to win, it doesn’t work with me.
In my day we would look at each other’s swing, someone like Eamonn Darcy would say something, and that was it. You worked on what you had and you got to know it. The thing is to know your own swing and, if you know where the clubhead is, you have a great chance.
I told Shane Lowry to pitch and putt until you are absolutely sick in the face and he thanked me for it in the papers.
. . .
I should have won the Open at least twice. I hadn’t enough experience. Take nothing away from Sandy (in ’85) but I never made a putt on the Sunday. I had 37 putts and that is horrendous, I hit 17 greens which is unheard of when you’re in contention on Open Sunday.
On the first day I shot 64 to lead by four. I had three three-putts. I also had seven birdies from the 4th to the 12th and hit the hole at 11. I used to get runs like that.
The Friday was one of the worst days weather wise, it was the best ever 76. It was brutal, then the weather settled again.
I had a great chance at Birkdale in 1976, I led after the first round, and then again in ’83. I had my chances.
. . .
In 1989 at the Ryder Cup I had just hit a fantastic 2-iron through the back of the 17th from 266 yards. At the last I wanted to hit the 5-wood, which was great to get it in the air but harder to hit straight.
My caddy, Matthew Byrne, was great. He said ’no way, you have just hit the best 2-iron of your life’. But all I could see was the pond and all these ducks. It was a long hole in those days.
My caddy said to make sure I made a full turn, the same advice my uncle had given me earlier in the day. The trajectory was quite low but I caught it full on. It was a three-tiered green and it went to three-and-a-half feet.
I was so concentrated, there was a sea of people but I didn’t see them until hit the shot. Fred Couples was the No 1 player in the world and I had to finish the job, if he beat me or not I had to play the hole as best as I could. And I did.
. . .
There is so much riding on it, you are playing for every spectator who are all screaming the place down. Then there is the team, your country and your family. I wouldn’t want it tomorrow but glad I did it.
Couples kept looking back to me. People say he shanked it, he didn’t, he cut it five yards and left himself a horrible chip.
He took it very badly I’m told. I played Fred the following year at St Andrews in the matchplay and I beat him 2&1. I hit a high fading 4-iron over the bunker to four feet and Couples walked up the 17th fairway, with a hanky attached to his putter, and he said ’that was a better shot than you hit at The Belfry.’
. . .
Do I have any regrets? The biggest regret of my life was losing my son in a car crash in 1998. He was going to be a wonderful golfer, he was off +1, had won the Under 17 All Ireland and was one shot off the U-21 title.
We were both going to play in America, me on the Champions Tour, and then he was killed. He was 17. It was the worst thing. We talk about him every day, he was so funny.
The ground used to shake when he hit irons. I played with Christy Sr one day in Westport and he doesn’t give too much away. He just said ’Christy, you have one’.
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