I have said it often and I will always say it: Christy O'Connor Senior, AKA Himself, was the greatest Irish golfer of my time bar none.
He was also a normal, unpretentious human being. I had the privilege of playing 18 holes with him once - don't mind me, he never forgot and any time our paths crossed there was a quick word, a wink or a thumbs up exchanged.
Christy O’Connor Junior who pre-deceased his uncle in January last had a highly successful sojourn on the Senior PGA Tour in America in 1999 where he won more money in a year than his illustrious uncle was able to win in a lifetime.
Furthermore, “the nephew” achieved more fame with one shot in the 1989 Ryder Cup at the Belfry than Senior managed in ten, consecutive appearances. It is possible to win more money in one tournament these days than in the entire lifetime of a Hogan, Nelson, Snead, or O’Connor Senior. Christy never won the big one, the British Open, but he had the knack of picking up record paychecks that were pittances by today’s standards. He was the first European player to win a four-figure prize (in 1955) at a time when a modest house could be built for the same sum.
To watch Christy hit drivers off the turf or long irons into the wind was an awesome sight. When he was preparing for the Irish Professional Close Championship in 1973 at my home club, Limerick Golf Club, I was invited to play a game with him. It cost me a side wager of £10 — half a week’s wages at the time — but it was money well spent to be able to study a master at work. Playing “out of my skin” on the first nine, I went out in 33 to be 2 up.
But you could see Christy changing gears on the tenth tee as he decided it was time to give 'this upstart, kid the brush-off.' On the way back his 32 outclassed my 36 and I had learned some valuable lessons.
I was thrilled to be at Woodbrook when Christy won the Carroll’s International Tournament, the forerunner of the resurrected Irish Open. When “Himself” went on a roll in those days, the murmurs and excitement around the course were electric. It is a shame that Christy was not better known in America.
Had he accepted any of the eighteen invitations he received from the Masters Committee at Augusta, he could have been. But he felt the journey was too daunting and expensive at the time, the April timing was not right, and the rewards inappropriate to the cost involved. Billy Casper once said that he, Palmer and Nicklaus were lucky that Christy was not born in America because they would not have won as often. Truer words were never spoken.
Christy came close to winning the British Open on a number of occasions, finishing in the top ten, ten times. The nearest miss was at Lytham in 1958. If he had made a par at the final hole he would have joined Peter Thomson (the winner) and Dave Thomas in a playoff.
Both were playing several groups behind him and unfortunately it was not known exactly what was required to win or tie. After driving into one of the nasty pot bunkers that litter the eighteenth hole at Lytham, Christy—with no “back off” in his nature—went for the green.
He failed to extricate himself at the first attempt and it cost him a double-bogey. Half an hour later Thomson drove into the same trap, played out backwards and then got down in two more shots for his par. If only Christy had done likewise.
In 1970, Christy won a huge world record–breaking check of £25,000 in the John Player Classic at Nottingham. Once more he bunkered his final tee shot, but this time he did know the score and what was needed to beat Tony Jacklin. Ignoring the Lytham experience, he hit a tremendous long iron onto the green and two-putted. The celebrations continued long into the night and for several days afterward, so that when Christy arrived in Ballybunion for a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf challenge against American Bob Goalby, he was a bit the worse for wear from 'celebrating.'
To add further spice, there was no love lost between these two. A few years earlier, during a Ryder Cup match in America, Christy had missed the GB&I team bus back to the hotel. Since the Americans had courtesy cars, Christy asked Goalby for a ride. Bob took offence when Christy lit a cigarette in his car.
A few heated words were exchanged and the aggravation was carried onto the course the next day when they were drawn to play each other. O’Connor won that match, but when Goalby saw the condition Christy was in after all the celebrating in Nottingham, he thought he saw an opportunity. He suggested that the winner should take the entire Shell purse. Christy, with £25,000 freshly arrived in his pocket, accepted. It turned out to be an atrocious day.
The cold and the wind were not long in clearing Christy’s hangover. The boisterous weather suited the Galway man and the American was blown away by a combination of the elements and Christy’s skill.
Christy achieved a terrific score of 91 before checking out by signing his final card on Saturday last. May he rest in peace.