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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : Christy O'Connor

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on a milestone for the legendary golfer

Posted Apr 27, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

christy o connor

                   Royal Dublin are planning a special celebration within the next few weeks to honour Christy O'Connor's 50 years with the club.  In fact he has already passed that milestone, given that his formal appointment as resident professional was on April 1st, 1959.

                   Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this lengthy association is that O'Connor never actually applied for the job, because he didn't think himself worthy of it.  This, from a player who became a national hero in November 1958 when he and Harry Bradshaw won the Canada Cup for Ireland in Mexico City.

                   While Bradshaw was the established professional at Portmarnock at the time, O'Connor was attached to Killarney.  Which meant that when their transatlantic flight landed in Shannon on the journey home, O'Connor went south while his partner travelled on to Dublin.

                   It was early in 1959 that Royal Dublin set about finding a suitable candidate to fill the role of professional, which had recently become vacant after the departure of Christy Kane. And O’Connor was their prime target.  The committee probably reasoned that if their North Dublin rivals, Portmarnock, could have one half of the victorious Canada Cup partnership, they should set about acquiring the other half.

                   By that stage, O'Connor was one of the leading players on the embryonic European tour, with victories in the Swallow Penfold (1955), Spalding Tournament and Dunlop Masters (1956) and News of the World Matchplay (1957) to his credit.  And there was no doubt but that a move to Dublin would have greatly facilitated his regular trips to Britain for tournaments.  Yet he never applied for the job when it was advertised.

                   Baffled by this, Royal Dublin sent a delegation to Killarney to find out what was the special hold the County Kerry club had over the player.  And on meeting O'Connor, they were shocked by his admission that he didn't think he would measure up to their requirements.   Having convinced him otherwise, the Royal Dublin representatives landed their man.

                   When the deal was done, O'Connor, his wife Mary and their young family clearly needed a new home.  And it is also 50 years since they moved into a house, located a few miles from Royal Dublin in the north Dublin suburb of Clontarf, at a cost of £2,000.  In the short space of five years since he and Mary were married, their fortunes had changed dramatically.

                  As they walked up the aisle in October 1954, Mary turned to her prospective husband and said: "Do you realise, Christy, that we haven't a shilling between us."  To which he replied: "Don't worry, Mary.  I'll earn it and you'll look after it."  And that's exactly what happened.

                 "We looked at other places but there was always something special, something lucky about this house," he said.  "The first thing I noticed was the laneway at the back, leading all the way down to Belgrove School (which their six children attended).  In fact there are laneways leading right down to the seafront."

                 He and Mary still live there. By his own estimation, O'Connor was never one for grand notions and as his family grew, the house was extended, obviating the need to move to larger accommodation.  Now, in the inevitable way of things, there is space to spare. 

                 The years have been kind to the man who became known to a generation, simply as Himself.  Though the thinning hair is now totally grey, he still walks with the same, animal grace and co-ordination, so familiar to his legions of admirers.  And when stressing a particular point, the clear, blue eyes can suddenly adopt a steely intensity, reminiscent of his competitive days.  

               Those of us of a certain age can remember the annual pilgrimage to Woodbrook, in the hope of seeing O'Connor beat all comers, which he frequently did.  Indeed the first golf tournament I ever covered was the 18-hole play-off of the Irish Hospitals Tournament at Woodbrook in 1960, when O'Connor shot a course-record 63 to beat Ken Bousfield by eight strokes.  It was a Monday morning and I was working for the Dublin "Evening Press".  "I've shot 62 in competition", he said, "and there were rounds in which I thought I could break 60.  But my putting wasn't good enough." 

               Three tournaments at Royal Dublin stand out as special in O'Connor's career.  The first of these was the 1966 Carroll’s International in which he finished eagle, birdie, eagle to beat Eric Brown for the title.  The next was the 1978 Irish Professional Championship in which he equalled Bradshaw's record by capturing the title for a 10th time.  And the last one was the British PGA Seniors Championship of 1992 when, a few months short of his 68th birthday, he tied Tommy Horton and Tony Grubb for the title, only to lose to Horton after a play-off.

               Tee to green, he was still more than a match for his younger rivals. But this was another of those occasions when his putting simply wasn't good enough.

- Dermot Gilleece


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