Monday, 15 September 2014

1989 Ryder Cup: Christy O'Connor Jnr

Before 1989, Christy O'Connor Jnr had a strained relationship with the Ryder Cup. Winless in his one previous appearance and then rejected in 1985, he must have felt that his chances of taking part in the ever popular event had long gone. But just when it looked as if the two would go their separate ways, fate decided to play a part in giving O'Connor and the Ryder Cup one last chance at patching up their differences. Beautiful fate.

O'Connor's only previous Ryder Cup experience had been the 1975 competition in Pennsylvania, but his struggles neatly reflected those of his team. A 3 & 2 defeat in the afternoon fourballs alongside 1987 hero Eamonn Darcy was one of six defeats out of eight matches on day one for Great Britain and Ireland, and things did not get any better the next day. Again the visitors would only win one match, O'Connor partnering John O'Leary to another loss in the foursomes, and in the days where not everyone was assured of a place in the two sets of singles, O'Connor had already played his last match.

One Ryder Cup, two matches and two defeats. Hardly as impressive as his uncle Christy who had played in 36 matches in the Ryder Cup between 1955 to 1973. As the years ticked by, it looked as if that would be O'Connor's lot as far as the Ryder Cup was concerned. Yet ten years later the Irishman began to put together a string of performances that gave him a chance to qualify for Europe's team and redeem his record.

A course record 64 at Sandwich in the opening round helped O'Connor to a tie for third place in the 1985 Open, and top ten finishes at the Irish, Dutch and Scandinavian Opens brought the prospect of a place in Europe's Ryder Cup team tantalisingly close. Sitting in the last automatic spot prior to the final qualifying tournament (the Benson and Hedges International at Fulford) O'Connor was just one solid week away from booking his place at The Belfry.

Unfortunately for O'Connor, things were about to turn pear-shaped. A missed cut left him vulnerable to a late attack, and when Jose-Maria Canizares sneaked in at the last minute, O'Connor now had to rely on a captain's pick from Tony Jacklin. Two of Jacklin's choices were apparently set in stone - Ken Brown and Nick Faldo, despite the latter struggling for form after remodelling his swing - and it was seen as a straight fight between O'Connor, Mark James and Gordon Brand Jnr for the final selection.

To the general amazement of everyone, Jacklin went against the perceived wisdom of the golfing media by choosing Jose Rivero over the rest. "I am disgusted and totally shattered," stated a furious O'Connor, understandably so after he missed out on his second Ryder Cup by just £115 (£115.89 according to The Times). O'Connor's ire would run and run; according to Jacklin, the only time O'Connor spoke to him in the next four years was to offer his condolences when Jacklin's wife Vivien passed away.

O'Connor was probably happy to see the back of 1985. At the end of the year his father died after suffering a heart attack, and over the next few seasons, O'Connor seemed unable to reproduce the form that had taken him so near to joining Europe's party. Having hovered around the top twenty of the Order of Merit during the next three years, few expected his 1989 campaign to be any different.

But a fine run of displays saw O'Connor finish fifth at the Volvo Open, fourth at the Volvo PGA, third at the Dunhill British Masters, and seventh at the English Open (played at The Belfry). To top it all, O'Connor won the Jersey Open, his first individual win on the Tour since his Ryder Cup debut.

Regardless of this fine season, no one was mentioning O'Connor's name when it came to predicting Jacklin's picks in 1989. Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle were seen as certainties for the side, and seemingly with only one place left it was assumed that Howard Clark would get the last slot in the team. Again Canizares booked his place at the final knockings, his birdie on the 18th hole at the German Open enough to promote him to the top nine. For O'Connor, it appeared that he would be facing yet more Ryder Cup heartache.

However, unbeknown to many, Sandy Lyle had already contacted Jacklin to inform him of his decision to step down from the Ryder Cup team due to his drastic loss of form during 1989 (which you can read about fully in this blog). O'Connor, who had departed the Frankfurter course without hearing the good news, was selected by Jacklin ahead of Philip Walton, to the general surprise of the press, who again were critical of Jacklin's final selection, this time questioning his judgement over O'Connor's inclusion rather than his exclusion as had been the case in 1985.

Some journalists wondered how Jacklin could justify picking a 41-year-old who, in their opinions, was past his peak and was not considered good enough four years previously. "Christy was very unfortunate not to be in the team in 1985, but on this occasion I favoured him because of his experience," a determined Jacklin retorted to the assembled media in Germany.

O'Connor was stung by the criticism aimed at both him and Jacklin, believing that neither could be judged until he had actually played a match and the Ryder Cup had been decided. Luckily we know that this story does have a fairytale finish, and both Jacklin and O'Connor were vindicated in their pre-match statements. Plenty of journalists would be wiping egg off their faces come September 24.

For the first day, O'Connor was a spectator as Europe came from 3-1 down to win the fourball session 4-0 for a 5-3 overnight lead. But Jacklin was keen for everyone to get a taste of the action before Sunday, and O'Connor's chance came on the Saturday morning when he was paired with Ronan Rafferty in the foursomes against Mark McCumber and Ken Green. The match started well for Europe, O'Connor and Rafferty winning the second, but the loss of five holes between 6-12 (including four bogeys) put the duo five down. Their eventual 3 and 2 loss meant O'Connor was still waiting for his first Ryder Cup point.

Europe maintained their two point lead going into the buttock clenching final day, although at one stage it looked as if this would not be enough. As the afternoon progressed, Europe had already lost one match - Howard Clark's 8 and 7 thrashing at the hands of Tom Kite - and were down in nine others. When Chip Beck beat an out of sorts Bernhard Langer, and Seve Ballesteros lost a dramatic match to Paul Azinger, Europe trailed 10-9 and their grip on the trophy was looking decidedly shaky.

That Europe got back into the contest owed a lot to the American struggles on the 18th hole, the location that would later provide O'Connor with his career-defining moment. After Mark James levelled the score at 10-10, both Payne Stewart and Mark Calchavecchia found water at the last, handing victories on a plate to Jose-Maria Olazabal and Rafferty respectively. At 12-10, Europe were just two points from retaining the Ryder Cup; finding these points was going to be far from easy though.

The O'Connor-Fred Couples match was nip and tuck throughout, with a stunning wedge from O'Connor to three-feet at 16 helping the Irishman to level the match, and when both blew decent opportunities at the 17th, the pair made their way to the 18th tee and the daunting conclusion which involved both a drive and approach shot over water. O'Connor played first, safely finding the fairway, but a long distance back from the green. Couples then chose the ideal time to hit the perfect drive, his soaring draw cutting off a significant chunk of the dogleg. With just a nine-iron left for the American, it was definitely advantage Couples.

And then it happened. One of the greatest shots in Ryder Cup history, played by a 41-year-old who many of the assembled press pack felt shouldn't even be in Europe's team. Watching Jose-Maria Canizares putt on the 17th I became aware that something special had taken place - just listen to the roar in the background on this clip - and it was the first time that I had watched the Ryder Cup and understood that huge cheers in the background can bring good or bad news (depending on whether Europe are home or away). "That sounded good," I said as I watched the coverage with my dad. It turned out to be a slight understatement.

Bruce Critchley often talks about the beauty of matchplay and "getting your blow in first". This is exactly what O'Connor did. Urged on by a supportive Jacklin - "One more good swing for Ireland. You get anywhere on the green and you're going to put huge pressure on him" - O'Connor's two-iron from approximately 229 yards landed on the green and ran up to the correct tier, ending up about four feet from the pin. Fist clenched in front of him, O'Connor had executed Jacklin's plan and some more.

Jacklin was right in the pep talk he had given O'Connor. Once the crowd had settled down it was Couples' turn. "Now, Freddie Couples follow that," stated Critchley, before the telltale sign of disgust displayed by the American gave an indication of the destination of his approach. "Ooh he hates it, he hates it," added Critchley, as Couples came off the shot and leaked it a long way right. Getting down in two shots was not a given, and even if Couples managed this, O'Connor would still have a putt for the point.

Although he was understandably rattled, Couples did manage a reasonable chip, but his par putt slipped past and that was that. The stunned American picked his ball up and walked towards O'Connor with his hand outstretched, as the volume of the crowd went off the scale. Looking up to thank a higher source, O'Connor crossed himself before being embraced by his wife Ann. Unable to contain himself anymore, O'Connor broke down, the enormity of the pressure finally released. For Couples there would also be tears, but the wrong sort. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Jacklin joined the celebratory embrace, as O'Connor somehow made his way from the green, looking every inch the man who had just been through an emotional roller coaster. It was almost lost in the occasion, but O'Connor had won his first point and Europe were just one away from retaining the cup. When Canizares - one year older than O'Connor - was gifted the last hole by Ken Green, Europe's elder statesmen had delivered when needed. Frustratingly America came back from 14-10 down to draw, but Jacklin could at least bow out with the Ryder Cup in European hands.

"He deserves an apology, and he has one. When the time came to win a point for Europe, and it was a desperate time, no-one could have given more". So wrote the Guardian's David Davies in his Monday report with regards to O'Connor and the criticism his selection had stirred up. "I've taken a lot of stick that I just didn't deserve," O'Connor later admitted, as he spoke to the very men who were slowly being forced to eat humble pie.

O'Connor himself described the Sunday as the greatest day of his life, and one that he would remember forever, although he had earlier explained that "I just can't remember hitting the shot. Everything is a daze to me at the moment". We can forgive him his confusion though. And just in case Christy O'Connor Jnr or anyone else for that matter should need a reminder of that fantastic shot, there is a plaque marking the location from where it was played.

"Christy O'Connor Jnr hit his famous 2 iron from this spot in his 1989 Ryder Cup singles match". A permanent tribute to one of the greatest shots in modern Ryder Cup history. That one more swing for Ireland wrote O'Connor's name permanently into Ryder Cup folklore, and, along with Jose-Maria Canizares, helped Tony Jacklin's Dad's Army to keep the trophy for another two years.


  1. Another great article, Brings back great memories of Christy Junior's Ryder Cup Redemption. Me and Dad were proud Irishmen watching him bring it home that day. I must check out that extended Youtube video. Mark.

  2. Thanks for sharing

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