Christy O'Connor and the 'open'
THE BRITISH OPEN GOLF Championship has been given such diverse descriptions as "the greatest golf show on earth" and "an anachronism". Antique it most certainly is, an anachronism it most certainly is not and like most antiques, it is eagerly sought and valued highly. In fact, the most prized title in golf.
Most of the big tournaments on the United States circuit carry much more prize money than the Open, but they do not carry the prestige attached to a title which can trace jts history back to 1860. One hundred and nine years ago, one William Park, from Musselburgh, won the championship from a field of eight at Prestwick, last month at Royal Lytham St. Annes, Lancashire, Tony Jacklin, from Lincolnshire, won the title from a field of well over 400. The participants came from the far flung corners of the earth and the quality of the entry list was the highest yet recorded. A splendid "anachronism"
One has only to look at the list of winners for the last 20 years to realise this. In fact, until this year, no golfer from this side of the Atlantic had captured the crown since 1951.
I t was nice, therefore, to see the famine end at Lytham, but for Irish partisans, it was a championship that ended in great disappointment. Only one Irishman has won this title. Fred Daly, from the Balmoral club in Belfast, achieved the feat in 1947. Another Irishman, Harry Bradshaw has actually tied for first place-at Sandwich, Kent in 1949-but he lost in a play-off for first place to South Africa's Bobby Locke. Yet when we come to think of the Open, it is not Daly or Bradshaw who springs to mind. Rather is it the name Christy O'Connor, the man who has won almost everything possible on the British circuit, except the Open, and who, in my opinion, has been the outstanding tournament professional in Ireland and Britain in the post-war era. O'Connor has finished in most positions from 2 to 10 in the "great event" in the last 15 years, but always the final accolade has eluded him.
It could I suppose be argued that the Royal Dublin professional lacks what the moderns term "the killer spirit" and that is why he has come so near to the goal without attaining it. But it is a line of thought that I see fit to dismiss. Certainly courage is an essential quality, so, need it be said, is skill. But I believe O'Connor has both these in abundance. It also needs luck, a lot of it, to win the Open championship and this is the ingredient that O'Connor has run out of so very many times at the II th hour. His performance this year in going round the Lytham links in 65 speaks for itself about his courage, for this 65 was recorded on a course that provided an examination in golfing skill that baffled most of the World's leading players. No other competitor equalled that 65, yet it was not enough. It was my pleasure this year and, in the end, my frustration, to see O'Connor in action at Lytham and I can say without wishing to make excuses, that O'Connor lacked just one essential and that was luck. This I feel was graphically demonstrated in the third round when he had to be content with a 74 after playing golf of a quality that, had he enjoyed even the slightest "rub of the green" would have been transformed into a sub-70 round. The final round, too, was much the same when fate turned against him, though here it must be admitted, he contributed to his own downfall, his game disintegrated after a mistake on the 6th green.
"You make your own luck" is an argument often put forward, and in part that is true, but seeing is believing and I saw fortune turn its back on the Irishman, just as it has done so very often in the Open, just as it did on the same links in 1958 when a bunker on the 18th fairway deprived him of the right to figure jn a play-off for the title. Just as it did at Royal Birkdale in 1965 when he finished second to Australia's Peter Thomson. How close can one get to winning and still not emerge triumphant.
These, one might say, are nice excuses, but O'Connor does not need anyone to make apologies for him. His career and record provide the answer.
Born in Galway 44 years ago, golf was his abiding interest from an early age, but there was no prodigious or meteoric rise to fame for the young O'Connor and in the immediate post-war era, it was to Daly and Bradshaw that we Irish looked for the five-star performances. Occasionally we noticed this man O'Connor from the Tuam club turning in a good score, the occasions got more frequent and suddenly we realised that a new star had not so much been born as gradually evolved. The first big breakthrough came in the Open in 1951 when he finished 22nd at Royal Portrush to Max Faulkner, who was to be the last "home" winner until Jacklin last month. At the time we were not to know that in the barren years between 1951 and 1969, O'Connor would be the one to come most frequently within range of the magic target. Yet he was the man who year after year stepped forward to challenge the "greats".
From Tuam he moved to Bundoran, then to Killarney and finally to Royal Dublin and all the time he was enriching the golfing scene and enhancing his reputation. His first four figure cheque came in the mid fifties, the first of nearly 20 valued at £1,000 or more that he has collected in his career to date.
At 44, one might safely say that he is unlikely to get better, but he can still match the best as he has done for nearly two decades, and today he stands at the head of the Professional Golfers' Association Order of Merit, a place reserved for the most successful player each year. That standing earned him automatic recognition for the British and Irish Ryder Cup team to meet the United States in the biennial match which this year takes place at Royal Birk
dale in September. It will be his eighth appearance in this contest and no player in the post war era can better or equal that. He has, too, figured on a winning team in the contest for he was a member of the last British and Irish team to win the trophy-at Lindrick, Sheffield in October, 1957.
O'Connor has not taken the most cherished of all titles, but he has won, in partnership with Bradshaw, the Canada Cup for Ireland and that victory was achieved on foreign soil against the World's best in Mexico City in 1958.
The Canada Cup is now no more, for it was given the more grandiose title, World Cup, a few years ago.
Ireland is the only European country to have won it and that speaks for itself about the standard of performance required for success in the World Cup.
Irish professional champion on seven occasions, winner of the British match play title, twice Master Golfer, O'Connor's tournament successes exceed those of any golfer from Britain or Ireland in recent times. When he was making his way up the ladder of fame, professional golf did not have attached to it the social kudos that it enjoys today. Nor did he have the opportunities open to the young professional of today, sponsorship, intensive coaching and management and promotion by business experts. But he still survives and can still take on most of the young tigers and win. So if a dream died or at least receded at the English seaside on a summer's day in July 1969, Christy O'Connor, of Royal Dublin, did Ireland and himself proud. Maybe he will win the Open one day and if he does not, what of it. He has had his hours, hundreds of them and they were our pleasure.