Christy O'Connor - Still Himself
Christy O'Connor

Christy O'Connor

Darren Clarke has conquered the world and beaten the best in the process while fellow Ulster man Fred Daly is the only Irishman to have won the British Open. But without question, Christy O'Connor Senior is, pound for pound, the greatest, and thankfully, a living legend.

Born in Knocknacarra, near Salthill in County Galway on December 21, 1924, Patrick Christopher O'Connor, found Galway Golf Club on his doorstep. And when he was tall enough to scale the boundary wall, he was at home.

O'Connor in the 1973 Ryder CupO'Connor worked on his game in his own "Open University" and graduated through caddying and green keeping to professional status. But it was not until 1951 that he was accepted as a member of the I.P.G.A., three years after he had been refused entry to the Irish Championship, which was staged at the Galway club. That delay, I fancy, still hurts the master.

But in time he became a most gifted player, setting markers of which lesser mortals could only dream. He won the first £1,000 prize in European golf in 1955, then the World's biggest prize - £25,000 - in 1970 before winning the World Seniors title seven years later.

In between he won the Canada Cup (World Cup) with Harry Bradshaw, was a regular high finisher in the British Open and played on the Ryder Cup team ten times between 1955 and 1973. O'Connor clocked up 25 European P.G.A. tournament wins and ten Irish Championships, producing a host of "miracle" shots in the process.

No wonder the great Lee Trevino said of him: "To me only three players have looked entirely natural swinging a golf club - Christy, Roberto de Vicenzo and Neil Coles. Christy flows through the ball like fine wine."

Praise indeed from a man who won all the great Championships and entertained thousands en route. But O'Connor's career is littered with endorsements from some of the World's finest players. And one of the first to tip Christy for greatness was Eric Brown, the tough Scot who was to become of O'Connor's greatest rivals and friends on the European circuit.

Before O'Connor hit a shot in his first Irish Championship at Royal Portrush, Brown told everyone who would listen: "There is an Irish lad here who reminds me of Sam Snead, his swing is a gift from God and he rips the ball a country mile."

For the record, Max Faulkner won that Championship and pocketed a £350 winning cheque; O'Connor finished 19th and exactly that amount of money.

But the good days were not too far away for Christy and Mary Collins the girl from Tuam, County Galway he married and who has walked the fairways with him ever since they tied the knot on October 12, 1954.

"We have no money, " said Mary as they walked down the aisle. "Don't worry," Christy whispered, "I'll win it and you can mind it." And that's how it's been ever since; Christy became a living legend and Mary his constant support.

But it was from the Bundoran club in Donegal to where he moved from Galway, that Christy launched his assault on the European circuit. The club paid his expenses to the Swallow Penfold tournament and he responded by winning it and the first £1,000 first prize ever in Europe.

And so O'Connor rolled on, establishing a fearsome reputation as a competitor, with a go for broke mentality and the ability to invent shots to get himself out of all sorts of trouble. "He was a genius with a wedge in his hands" recalled Norman Drew, one of the few men to have played in the Walker Cup, the Ryder Cup and the World Cup "as a rough weather player he had few equals and I remember when we had a ballot on the best "escape artist" in Europe, he won by a mile."

But for all his triumphs, he never won the big one; the British Open eluded him although he played in it 26 times from 1951 to 1979. However he had some good finishes. He was third in 1958, 5th a year later third again in l961 and runner up in 1965 to Australian Peter Thomson, five times winner of the title.

And the pair of them left some classy golfers trailing in their wake, including Roberto de Vicenzo, Kel Nagle, Tony Lema, Bruce Devlin, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Phil Rodgers and Doug Saunders.

Thomson's victory silenced those critics who claimed that the Australian had not beaten the best to win his previous titles. But O'Connor blames Thomson for his failure to at least get in a play off with the Aussie and Dave Thomas in the 1958 Open at Lytham.

After rounds of 67 and 68 O'Connor led by a shot at half way, his 135 aggregate the lowest since Henry Cotton's 134 at Sandwich in 1934. But playing directly behind Thomson and Thomas in the final two rounds, thirty-six holes were then played on the last day; O'Connor was constantly held up by Thomson's deliberately slow play.

O'Connor appealed to the official Royal and Ancient match referee and directly to Thomson at the lunch break but to no avail. And it transpired that O'Connor and his partner Leopold Ruiz from Argentina needed a par four at the 379 yards final hole to force a play off with Thomson and Thomas who were already in the clubhouse.

The crowd control was so bad that the final pair had only half the fairway at which to shoot and both bunkered their tee shots. Ruiz took two to get out and his challenge ended but O'Connor splashed out, pitched too strongly and his putt to make the play off finished on the lip of the hole.

Thomson easily won the play off by four shots and O'Connor finished third with Eric Brown." The reality is that I lost that Open not on the last hole but before that and I blame Peter Thomson," O'Connor said afterwards.

O'Connor never made a structured assault on the U.S. circuit and he never played in the Masters although he was invited to do so on several occasions and he regrets that. But I'm sure the Yanks don't.

"It's a good thing you weren't born in the United States, otherwise nobody would have heard of me, or those other two plumbers, Palmer and Nicklaus," Billy Casper, a rival at both Ryder Cup and tournament level in America, told O'Connor.

Almost invincible at home, Christy also won the first big ball tournament in England in 1960 and of course the John Player Classic in 1970 worth a staggering £25,000, then the biggest first prize in World Golf.

An amazing man, a legend in his own life time, an artist with a club in his hands and at 75 years young, he's still knocking the ball around tough courses in level par.