Brian KeoghComment

Goodbye to Himself: Christy O'Connor, 1924-2016

Brian KeoghComment
Goodbye to Himself: Christy O'Connor, 1924-2016
Christy O'Connor

Christy O'Connor

The death at 91 of Christy O’Connor Snr in the small hours of Saturday morning marks the end of an era in world golf and the loss to Ireland of one of its greatest ever sportsmen.

While he never attained the major championship glory that has come to so many of the modern Irish players from Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke to Graeme McDowell, his achievements were ever bit as great and he leaves a huge mark on the history of the Irish and the world game.

He was also a modest man.

“I still can't believe it, and I really in my heart, I am a gentleman and I am absolutely stumped for words,” he said at Baltray in 2009 when he gave a press conference to mark the news that he had been voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “But usually I'm not usually stumped for words, I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen. 

“But when you get something like this, when you don't expect, because I didn't think I was in that type of league with these top people who have been received into this; I mustn't have been too bad, really. So I certainly am very proud of what you have given me here. 

“I'll try to be a good gentleman, if possible, mind you, there's a little bit I can do now at 84 years of age. But I think that George -- may I call you, sir, George? Thank you for your beautiful message on the phone. And Richard, for coming along to meet me in Royal Dublin, we even kept that quiet yesterday, sorry that we couldn't tell you. I did my best but that was the best I could do. 

“What a great thrill to introduce Jack to come along and tell me the good news. So ladies and gentlemen, I am absolutely -- I don't know what to say. What can you say? I'm so pleased. I would like to take this time to say to the people in the United States and the PGA that are in the Hall of Fame, I'm speechless. So thank you very much.”

Asked the highlight of his career, he said: “You know, the highlight I think is meeting nice people. When you're a professional golfer, you travel a good part of the world, and being as lucky as I have been the Tour and to be so successful, which was not bad, I suppose, I must have been quite all right. But really, it's meeting people, because no matter where you go, no matter what country you went to, golfers are golfers. So to answer your question, it's meeting people, really. That's what I really appreciate. 

It's a gift. It's great.”

That he turned down many invitations to play in the Masters was not a mystery to him, 

“Well, I'll answer the question this way,” he said of his aversion to playing the US. “First of all, when I started the Tour, there's a thing called cash, money; I had very little of it. 

So to really get on the Tour, I worked really hard giving lessons and teaching people, which I loved, and then eventually I got a little money and I said, now, I have no sponsors; it was my money and I was going to play very hard for it. So that was the secret in the one way. 

“The other way is the States, being on The Ryder Cup, which I always got a great thrill and seeing a good part of the world and a good part of the States and of course a good part of England, as well, because it was England and Ireland at that time was The Ryder Cup. Now it's Europe and it's opened up. I was young when I came to The Ryder Cup; I was invited to the Masters, 20 times, because every two years, as you know, gentlemen, is The Ryder Cup. 

“So in that time, people said, Christy, why don't you go to the Masters. I'm very sad I didn't go to the Masters, and I can only tell that you to the date, and I'm sad I didn't win the British Open, too. But really, the question is, this is the question, and I'm very sad I didn't play in the Masters. I would have loved the event but I couldn't afford to. England at that time, which was across the water at that time, it was like going to America now. So England, it was in Spalding. Now that was in April. Now I wouldn't be tuned up to go to the Masters, because my money couldn't afford to go.”

Asked his views on the current crop of stars, he said: “Well, I would say, they might like me for this, but we used to play 36 holes the last day, down the road at Wentworth, that was something in the PGA at that time, and might held up. Somebody would lose a ball or something, and you would hand in the card and say, Christy, you'll have 15 minutes and that will be about three hours and a little, you would run around for 18 holes.

“Well, now, don't hold this against me, you asked this question; I'd hate to be playing now, today, because I was always a fast player. I think that I would get lost. I think I probably would be looking for the bar. That's a joke, of course. (Laughter).”

Seve Ballesteros played with O’Connor early in his career and when he got home, he sought out his brother with excitement and said: "Manolo! Manolo! I have just watched a player with the most wonderful hands I have ever seen. His name is Christy O'Connor."

The Galway man’s fame was such that he was simply referred to in Ireland as “Himself” promoting Peter Dobereiner of the Guardian and the Observer to pen an amusing piece on his pairing with Ballesteros in the Irish Open at Portmarnock in August 1980, famously referring to the protagonists as "Himself" and "Your Man".

"The normal routine at the Carrolls Irish Open is for the fans to stroll outside the fairway ropes," Dobereiner wrote, "watching a favourite player until the leaderboard gives news of exciting deeds elsewhere. Then like a herd of wildebeeste catching the scent of a lion, they wheel and stampede across the course, pushing and jostling, invariably with men in holy orders producing unholy disorder as they elbow their way to the front with never so much as a Nunc Dimittis.
"It was therefore the happiest of coincidences which paired two players in joint 47th place, together for the third round, for there could be no question of a conflict of loyalties in this instance. The entire population of Dublin, plus a few thousand out of towners, trooped across Portmarnock to watch Your Man playing Himself. Dublin has seen nothing like it since the day the Pope landed in Phoenix Park, and no less piety either.”

As Tom Keogh wrote in 1999: 

“Born in Knocknagarra, near Salthill in County Galway on December 21, l924, 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 worked on his game in his own "Open University" and graduated through caddying and green keepingto 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 markersofwhich 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.”

When at the Masters a few years ago, a few Irish reporters happened to meet Gary Player, who immediately asked after O’Connor.

Christy O’Connor Senior turned down every invitation to play at Augusta but three-time Masters winner Gary Player insists that Himself is still his hero.

The Man in Black has fond memories of his former British Open rival — beating him by four shots in 1959 to win his first Claret Jug at Muirfield.

Player gushed: “Christy Senior? What a man. He was bionic. I remember he was a man who would finish half a bottle of whiskey and go out and still beat you.

“It used to frustrate the c**p out of me that he could be that good.

“He and Sam Snead were the two greatest natural players the world has ever seen. Christy O’Connor and Sam Snead.”

The Galway legend had 10 Top-10 finishes in the Open but he couldn’t hole enough putts to win the only major he ever played.

Player insisted: “If Christy O’Connor could have putted like me, he would have won 10 majors. Wristy Christy.

“Of course, he putted on crappy greens too. But Christy O’Connor was the best bad weather player of all time. 

“He was the best the world has ever seen. Nobody could beat Christy O’Connor in rain and wind. No man ever could come close. 

“It’s quite sad from my point of view that a man like that never won at least four or five or six majors.

“But you see that with many players. He’s 89 now? 90 in December? I bet he still hits balls. I remember Royal Dublin very well. Tell him he’s Gary Player’s hero.”