Christy O’Connor Jnr, a former Ryder Cup hero, European Tour and Senior Tour veteran, and pioneer of golf in Ireland, has died aged 67.
The Galway native passed away in his sleep while on holiday in Tenerife. He is survived by his wife Ann, daughter Ann and son Nigel.
O’Connor Jnr is best known for hitting one of the most famous shots in Ryder Cup history – a two-iron approach to the 18th green at The Belfry in 1989 which came to rest four feet from the hole, helping Tony Jacklin’s team retain the cup courtesy of a 14-14 tie.
That was the first of two appearances in the world’s most famous team golf event, having also represented Great Britain and Ireland in 1975 following the most successful of his 28 seasons playing on The European Tour, spanning three decades.
The nephew of another famous Irish golfer, Christy O’Connor, two of his four European Tour victories came that season, the second of which was a glorious homecoming at the Irish Open, and he later added two more titles – the latter in the 1992 British Masters.
From The European Tour’s inception in 1972, he did not finish outside the top 100 in the Order of Merit in his first 21 seasons, and that class and longevity extended into his Senior Tour career.
In his maiden campaign in the over-50s ranks, O’Connor Jnr stormed to a three-shot victory in the 1999 Senior Open Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club, before returning to Northern Ireland a year later to successfully defend the title at Royal County Down.
He also lifted two titles on the Champions Tour in America in 1999, and his success did not halt after hanging up his clubs.
O’Connor Jnr latterly forged an extremely successful career as a golf course designer, with Shane Lowry’s home golf course Esker Hills, former Irish Open venue Fota Island and recent host of the Challenge Tour’s Irish Challenge, Mount Wolseley – where he played in the Pro-Am last October – among the lay-outs in his portfolio.
George O’Grady, Chief Executive of The European Tour from 2004-2015, said: “It is a very sad day for the O’Connor family and for Ireland as a whole.
“Christy Jnr was a legendary figure and his immense legacy is far more than purely his playing record. He was a universally popular player and always enhanced every tournament he played, no matter the occasion. His infectious charm will be sorely missed.”
Ken Schofield, Executive Director of The European Tour from 1975-2004 and Board Director for the Confederation of Professional Golf, said: “Christy Jnr’s playing record will rightly depict him as one of Ireland and Europe’s leading players of his generation – the generation that set the template for today’s global European Tour.
“Much more so for everyone involved with the Tour and the game of golf, Christy will be remembered as a gentleman spirit – every amateur golfer’s dream as the perfect Pro-Am partner, on and off the golf course. It is a very sad day for the game and our hearts go out to Ann and all the extended family.”
PGA Chief Executive and Chairman of the Confederation of Professional Golf, Sandy Jones, added: “It’s fair to say Christy will probably be best remembered for the incredible shot he hit at The Belfry in the 1989 Ryder Cup when he beat Fred Couples. It’s one of those moments that will live long in the memory of anyone who saw it.
“He was an outstanding player and also an Irishman who won the Irish Open, so he had a good career including playing in two Ryder Cups 14 years apart, which was an amazing feat, but more than that he was a really nice guy.
“I knew him quite well and did a few dinners with him and always enjoyed his company. The great thing about him was that he always had a laugh and a smile on his face and was a legendary figure of Irish golf.
“He was a great character and I was very shocked and very saddened to hear of his sudden passing and he will certainly be missed.”
Tony Jacklin, two-time Major winner and 1989 Ryder Cup Captain, said: “It is very sad news. Looking back, it was very hard not to pick Christy for the 1985 Ryder Cup team but José Rivero had won on The Belfry that year so it was obviously a decision based purely on golf.
“But we were delighted to have him on the team in 1989 and I remember he was very excited when I told him.
“Obviously I followed him very closely down the last two holes at The Belfry in 1989 and I caught him before he teed off at the 18th. I had noticed on the previous hole that Fred’s (Couples) hands were not operating properly – he had missed a short putt – so I knew Christy had him.
“Christy hit a wonderful tee shot and the Fred pulled his, but because he was so long he cleared the water, leaving himself with an eight iron, while Christy had a two iron. I said to Christy, ‘come on, one more good swing for Ireland’ and of course he hit the shot of his lifetime. We couldn’t have retained it without him, no doubt.
“He had a great effect on the team room too. We had a great team unity and he was a big part of that.
“Obviously Christy played in the shadow of his uncle but he became a legend in his own right, especially in Ireland. He will also be remembered for his architecture and his name will live on for a long time to come.
“My thoughts go out to his family. Of course, he endured the loss of his son and we will all be thinking about his wife Ann at this difficult time, no doubt about that.”
Eamonn Darcy, European Tour and Senior Tour veteran and close friend of O’Connor Jnr, said: “Christy and I used to reminisce a lot about the early 1970s, when we used to travel together everywhere and practice and play together all the time.
“Actually it is exactly 40 years since we won a famous old ‘better-ball’ event down in Bournemouth, which I was reminded of today – a tournament we won back-to-back together.
“Then of course we played together in the 1975 Ryder Cup, which was a very proud moment for both of us.
“I think you could write two books about our lives together. He was a great man, a real family man who obviously went through a bad time when his son passed away. But that shot in 1989 was just amazing and it was such a great time for his family.
“Christy obviously had big boots to fill after his uncle, but I never thought Christy Senior would be burying his nephew.
“He was the life and soul of every party – ask anybody on tour and they will tell you the same thing. He would always be the one to get the party going if the atmosphere on tour was a bit flat.
“He was very dedicated to his family and loved them to bits – obviously that is said of a lot of people but it was so true for Christy.
“He was a great player and a great friend. He had a great life but I’m just sorry it went so quickly and so suddenly, without time to say goodbye. It’s hard to comprehend – I had only had dinner with him last week.
“He was great for golf and did so much work for charity in Ireland. He was a household name and it is a very sad day. I have lost a true friend.”
The 2014 European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley said: “This is a terribly sad day for Christy’s family, obviously, but also for all of Ireland and lovers of golf worldwide.
“I couldn’t believe the news when I heard it this morning, especially as just before Christmas I had a wonderful night out in Dublin with Christy and some of the older Irish pros – Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy, Philip Walton, Jimmy Heggarty and Paddy McGuirk, as well as Ray Latchford who used to caddie for Christy and Des.
“We had a great night – full of memories, full of stories and full of good old Irish craic and laughs, and it is the laughter and fun that I will remember most about Christy.
“When I first came out on Tour in the early 1990s, guys like Christy, Darce, Jimmy Hegarty and Smythie were senior players and made time for me and took me under their wing. I had countless dinners with those guys, what a learning education that was!!
“They helped equip me for life on and off the Tour. I was very lucky to have had that time and a great relationship with Christy, which makes today’s news all the harder to take.”