Buoyant O'Connor sets new targets

 

The festive season tends to create a sharper awareness of how difficult life must be for Christy O'Connor Jnr and his family, in the wake of his son's tragic death 16 months ago. Still, one can only guess at the stabs of perverse pain which are prompted by the sight and sound of revelry.

So, it is all the more enriching to note his enthusiasm for a new golfing season, which sees him head back to the US Seniors' Tour next weekend, preparatory to tournament action in the MasterCard Championship in Hawaii on January 21st to 23rd.

Since arriving home to Clarinbridge for the Christmas break, there has been a 21st birthday party with family and friends for his older son Nigel. But now it is time to get back to a remarkably rewarding scene, which brought him two victories and $710,729 in tournament earnings last season.

"One of my friends down here in Galway calculated that I earned £660 for every tournament hole I played last year," he said. "That's going to be very difficult to repeat. In fact I can hardly believe that along with winning twice in the States, I also won the British Senior Open."

O'Connor, who was 51 on the 19th of August, has set himself a very clear target in the US where he will be playing for a staggering $53 million an increase of 10 per cent on 1999. And he also carries the boost of a new club contract with the American company, Orlimar. "I hope to have two more good years and then come home," he said. "After that, I'd love to do other things, especially in course designing. I've always liked to diversify."

It is widely accepted on the Seniors' Tour that the first five years are the most productive. The belief is that on reaching 55, players start to slow down, physically. "That has to be true," O'Connor agreed. "That's the way life is. It happens on the main tour too, when you hit the 44 mark."

He went on: "I know there are exceptions but as a general rule, the older you get the more yardage you're going to be giving away. Against that background, guys in their sixties, like Bob Charles, Gary Player and George Archer, are unbelievable. But they're very competitive and they work-out all the time.

"I remember them explaining to me at the end of a tournament in Myrtle Beach last year, how they planned their winter. How they had golf already set up to keep them sharp through November, December and early January. That's how they were preparing for the next season."

O'Connor surprised even his staunchest supporters by the level of his success last year, when he won the State Farm Classic on July 4th, the same day that Sergio Garcia captured the Murphy's Irish Open at Druids Glen. Then came the British Senior Open at Royal Portrush later that month, followed by the Foremost Insurance Championship at Egypt Valley CC in mid-August.

An indication of how competitive the American scene has become is that O'Connor's two tournament victories guaranteed him exempt status only until next August. After that, he would have been dependent on sponsors' invitations and, by his own reckoning, "you don't want to live like that."

As he put it: "Having a card is great and I hope to God I can hang onto it. My intention is to play about 25 tournaments, which should be a help." He played 16 events last year and finished 26th in the money list: only the top-31 gain full exemption for the following year.

After starting in Hawaii, he will go on to the senior Florida Swing and complete seven straight tournaments before returning home for a break. Meanwhile, there will be further periods of togetherness with his wife Ann and children Ann Jnr and Nigel, who travelled to the US to be with him at certain times last season.

His European plans are to play in the Millennium British Open at St Andrews, for which he qualified by winning at Portrush. Then he will defend the British Senior Open, which has moved to Royal Co Down. And it's "99 per cent certain" he will play in the Irish Senior Open at Tulfarris.

"After that, I really can't say, because everything will depend on how I'm doing in the States," he said. "But there's no question of playing in any regular tour events because even if I won one, it wouldn't give me any exemption anywhere. I'm finished with the regular tour. People have asked me if I would be interested but I've told them I did it for 31 years and now I've moved on."

He continued: "Though my initial target in the US will be to make the top-31, no year can be complete without a win. Even one win would be lovely. That'll be my major hope - to win a tournament somewhere along the way.

"But the competition is fierce. Those guys out there don't take any rests. They just play and play and play. And their scores will show you how competitive they are. It's total farce for people to suggest that we're playing off the ladies' tees. Sure, there's some of the older courses which are fairly short, but by God, when you go out to the newly-designed courses, you're talking about serious length."

You're also talking about serious practice. According to O'Connor, if a player stays in bed until 6.30 a.m., he's likely to be almost last to the practice ground. "They're having breakfast at first light," he said. "And they hit thousands of balls. The facilities are so unbelievably good that you're encouraged to work."

He went on: "There's buckets and buckets of balls. And unlike the regular tour in Europe, you can have the choice of three different makes. Then you play a practice round in a buggy. After that, you're back in the clubhouse for lunch, which is all prepared for you. Then you're off to the practice ground again. And after that, some of the guys head for the keep-fit caravan.

"By the time evening arrives and they've had dinner, they're off to bed. And instinctively you follow suit, for the simple reason that there's nothing else to do."

After his major success at Royal Portrush last July, did he think a major win in the US was on the cards? "Yes," he replied. "And it's something I would love to do. As you know there are four of them, but the US Senior Open is obviously the one that stands out. I'm told this year's venue (Saucon Valley CC, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) is out of this world, so I'll be looking forward to that.

"But the competition gets tougher all the time. Tom Kite, Andy North and Lanny Wadkins are among the latest arrivals, while Tom Watson, who started last September, will be embarking on his first full season.

"I think Watson will do really well. By way of leaving his calling card, he's already stepped in with a win and a third, as much as to say `I'll see you guys for some serious stuff next season'. I think he's going to be awful strong. He hits the ball so far that he looks like a 30-year-old rather than a 50-year-old. He's going to be massive competition, I think."

Meanwhile, looking beyond tournament golf, O'Connor is currently negotiating with the Nicklaus organisation with a view to involvement in their course design activities. "The idea would be to become involved in their world-wide operations," he said. "I like Nicklaus's work. I see him as among only a few designers who have improved with time. Most designers start off well and then lose their way. But Nicklaus has improved."

He explained: "A particularly noticeable aspect is the manner in which he has eased back on the difficulty of his greens' complexes. He used to place great emphasis on really tough chipping and pitching. Now, if you're good enough to get up and down, he'll give you a chance."

O'Connor then reflected wistfully on that glorious weekend last July, when he beat such luminaries as Player and Charles for the British Seniors crown. "I will miss Portrush, it's such a brilliant layout," he mused. "I had only played nine holes on it in my whole life, prior to the Senior Open. Now, it's the sort of course I would love to go back to again and again.

"Royal Co Down is a very different challenge. You've got to drive it long there, and keep it straight and if the wind starts to blow, some guys will be forced to pick up. It's a helluva golf course, probably one of the best built in its time, if not the best. I'm really looking forward to playing there."

Interestingly, O'Connor's long-term plans include the upgrading old courses like Royal Co Down by giving them additional length, re-doing the bunkers and re-shaping the greens. Before that, however, further riches beckon in Eldorado, which is what the US Seniors Tour has become for players of his talent.