John Brennan: Goodbye to ‘The Don’ of Irish golf

Christy O'Connor Senior strode hugely above the sport in Ireland

Christy O’Connor Senior strode hugely above the sport in Ireland

He was ‘The Don’ – the Godfather of Irish Golf.

For decades Christy O’Connor Snr, who passed away at the age of 91, strode hugely above the sport in Ireland.

It’s hard to fathom now, but he was not just Ireland’s greatest golfer, but one of our greatest sportsmen. 

Just as every Irish person of his time knew then who Ringey was, or Ron Delany was, or what Arkle stood for, so too they knew who was, simply, Christy. And when you are known by your first name you have it made.

In recent years he revelled in the victories of Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell as they conquered the sport’s Majors. There was no jealousy in O’Connor’s thoughts as he watched the quartet triumph repeatedly.

He knew how hard it was to win a major, and seeing the seed he had sown bear fruit gave the Galwayman the utmost pleasure.

What did long-time Sunday World columnist Christy do to be this great hero? 

Well, he won 25 times on the European Tour, back when there were far less chances to win. He was the first to bag a winning cheque worth £1,000 on tour. The first to win one worth £5,000. And the first to win one worth £25,000.

He played in a then-record ten successive Ryder Cups, 15 World Cups for Ireland – winning in Mexico City in 1958 with Harry Bradshaw – and he won numerous Irish Championships, both for stroke-play and matchplay.

He was known often as ‘Wristy Christy’ for his wonderful touch when putting and chipping, while his swing with the longer clubs was described as ‘like watching wine falling from a bottle – it just flows.’

American champion Billy Casper, a multiple major winner himself, said: “Thank God O’Connor never came over here (to the US Tour). Otherwise I’d never have knocked a living out of golf. He’d have won everything and I’d have been a plumber.”

There were three disappointments in his career, one self-inflicted, the other pair Christy could do nothing about.

It seems strange to say it now, when an invite to the Masters is the most coveted of all in golf, but O’Connor turned down numerous offers to head to Augusta. His family reckon it might have been as many as 20 over the years.

Christy’s reasoning was simple. 

“Back in the late ‘50’s and all through the ‘60s, the European Tour didn’t start until May,” he said. We pros would spend the winters at our courses, as I did at Royal Dublin, giving lessons, mending clubs and looking after our shops.

“But the Masters, then and now, was in early-April. 

“All the American pros would play in California in the winter and then head out for the famed Florida swing in March to be ready for the Masters. 

“To compete there properly I’d have had to go to Florida too and all that would have cost too much money when you were bringing up a young family at home.”

Whatever about the Masters, O’Connor should have won the British Open, the major tailor-made for a man brought up on links golf. He finished tied second in 1965 and tied third in 1958, the latter being the one he reckons got away from him.

But in 1958 he played in the third and fourth rounds in the group behind Peter Thomson, the great Aussie golfer who knew full well how O’Connor played and slowed his game down to annoy the Irishman.

O’Connor complained to rules officials, but they did nothing and our hero lost out by two shots and let his feelings be known afterwards to anyone within hearing range, Thomson included.

Christy played golf the way Arnold Palmer said the game should be played, ‘hit the ball, find it, and hit it again.’ 

The other massive omission from O’Connor’s CV was his disgraceful snubbing, repeatedly, by the PGA when it came to the Ryder Cup captaincy.

The honour was not the huge thing it is now, but it still should have been extended to O’Connor for his ten successive appearances, a record that stood until Nick Faldo broke it a few years ago.

Instead a crew of British golfers, not fit to fix O’Connor’s clubs never mind swing them, were put in charge.

Christy was never a man to call a spade an agricultural implement, as the incident with Thomson above shows. 

He was never backwards about coming forward when it came to discussing something that would help the game or his fellow pros. That didn’t help his cause for the captaincy, but it was still a notable lapse on the part of the PGA.

Even 10 years ago, when the great competition finally came to Ireland, it was discreetly suggested by more than one person in the know that the then 81-year-old O’Connor be given some sort of honorary role at the K Club. But it didn’t happen. 

In his retirement, Christy could often be seen down in his beloved Royal Dublin out on the practice ground – still honing the swing that flowed like wine.

Earlier this year Christy suffered a tragedy in his life, when his nephew, Christy Jnr, another wonderful golfer, passed away at the age of 67. It knocked Senior back.

He passed away peacefully in hospital Saturday morning.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis. One of Ireland’s greatest is gone.

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