In a successful professional career that spanned three decades, the Irish golfer Christy O’Connor Jr, who has died unexpectedly at the age of 67, will be remembered above all for one shot: a majestic long-iron that helped Europe retain the Ryder Cup at the Belfry in 1989.
O’Connor, then the oldest member of the Europe team, was up against the USA’s Fred Couples in the high-pressure seventh singles slot on the final day at the West Midlands course. With the match standing all square as they reached the long, intimidating par-four 18th hole – and with the entire Ryder Cup also in the balance – O’Connor watched Couples hit an enormous drive that went so far past his own tee shot that the American had only a nine-iron to reach the green, whereas the Irishman needed to use one of the trickiest clubs in the bag – a two-iron.
With about 230 yards to go, a fearsome water hazard beckoning at the front of the green and millions watching on television, O’Connor stepped up and hit what he later described as “the shot of my life” – a perfect strike that cleared the water with ease and skipped on to finish four feet from the flag. Couples, finding the pressure transferred to himself, leaked his much simpler approach shot to the right of the green, chipped on unconvincingly, missed the putt, and conceded the match, prompting O’Connor to cross himself and collapse in tears. The point resulting from the Irishman’s victory was the key moment in a 14-14 draw that enabled Europe to retain the cup that they had won two years earlier in the US.
O’Connor’s fearless stroke has gone down as one of the great moments of the modern era of golf, and was all the more remarkable because the man who played it had been written off by most of the sport’s commentators. Aged 41, a wild-card pick with the beginnings of a pot belly, O’Connor was making only his second appearance in the Ryder Cup – the other had been 14 years earlier – and on the morning of his eventual triumph a slew of British newspapers had unkindly identified him as a likely loser. “My wife told me not to read the papers at breakfast,” he recalled later, “but I took a peek and they said ‘O’Connor is the weak link.’ I think that actually made me stronger.”
That he rose to the occasion was no great surprise, for O’Connor had proved himself a composed and gutsy campaigner over many years. While never able to scale the highest peaks of the game, he claimed four European Tour titles during his career and 13 other tournaments.
Born in Knocknacarra, Galway, Christy was the son of Elizabeth (nee Noone) and John O’Connor. The family farmed cattle and pigs near Galway golf club, and one of John’s brothers was Christy O’Connor Sr, a legend in Irish golf. Christy Jr turned professional as a teenager in 1967 and made his first big impression by tying for first place with Australia’s Ian Stanley in the Martini International at Royal North Devon in 1975 – the year he made his debut in the Ryder Cup and also won the newly revived Irish Open.
A popular and charming figure, O’Connor was the life and soul of any party and was well known for his fine singing voice, which he could be persuaded to show off after a drink or two in the evenings. By the late 1970s, however, socialising had overtaken his commitment to the game, and a run of poor performances had led him to lose his tour card. Shaken by the turn of events, he spent five years getting back to his previous best.
The reward was his highest finish in a major – tied third in the 1985 Open Championship at Royal St George’s, Sandwich – but he was devastated when Tony Jacklin failed to pick him for that year’s Ryder Cup, especially as Europe won for the first time in 28 years. O’Connor’s 1989 appearance at the Belfry proved to be his last in the competition, but he continued in good form for a number of years thereafter, picking up his last European Tour title, the British Masters, at Woburn in 1992.
In the late 1990s he joined the seniors tours in both Europe and the US, winning the Senior British Open twice, at two Northern Ireland courses – Royal Portrush in 1999 and Royal County Down in 2000. By then he had begun to design golf courses, and he was the architect of more than 20 layouts across Europe, the majority in Ireland. He also marketed his own range of wines.
O’Connor is survived by his wife, Ann, and by two children, Nigel and Ann. Another son, Darren, died in a car accident in 1998.
• Christy O’Connor Jr, golfer, born 19 August 1948; died 6 January 2016
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