A man of fashion, of impeccable manners and, on top of it all, a great golfer: John O’Leary, who has died at the age of 70, was a former Ryder Cup player and Irish Open champion of 1982 who, when his professional career finished, contributed hugely to the growth of the European Tour in his role as a director for 34 years.
The finest moment of his career came with victory in the 1982 Irish Open at Portmarnock Golf Club, a win that weighed heavily on his shoulders for some 25 years until it was lifted when Pádraig Harrington ended the drought of a home-grown winner at Adare Manor in 2007.
“I’ve had my time and they were special times. For the people who have made this great golfing country, it shouldn’t be 25 years since,” said O’Leary on that day when Harrington triumphed.
On that day, Harrington picked up a winner’s cheque for €416,660, which served to demonstrate the giant leaps made since O’Leary’s win for, when O’Leary held off Maurice Bembridge to win at Portmarnock, his prize was IR£13,000. Modern day players were only too aware that O’Leary’s guidance as a director of the PGA European Tour was a contributory factor in such growth.
Of his win at Portmarnock, O’Leary recalled that he never spoke from the time he left his parents’ house in Blackrock until he reached the car park of Portmarnock Golf Club. Indeed, the crowds were so great on the cross-city journey that he required a Garda escort to beat the traffic which was evident as far back as the seafront along Dollymount.
O’Leary – who moved to Richmond, outside London, in the fledgling days of his professional career for the reason that airline prices were so costly at the time – had two wins on the European Tour, the 1976 Greater Manchester Open and the 1982 Irish Open, while his first win as a professional was in the 1975 Royal Swazi Sun Open on the South African circuit. His best finish in a Major was in the 1979 British Open, when he finished tied-13th.
In terms of team golf, a highlight of his career – outside of the Irish Open success – was playing on the Britain and Ireland team in the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley in the United States, where he played four matches but failed to win a point. He was one of three Irish players on the team, along with Eamonn Darcy and Christy O’Connor Jnr. The USA won the match by 21-11. O’Leary also represented Ireland in three World Cups (1972, 1980 and 1982).
On finishing his playing career, O’Leary served as a director of the European Tour from 1985 until 2019, when he attended his last meeting in March of last year.
Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, said: "John made a huge contribution to the evolution of the European Tour, firstly as a successful player and then as a long-serving member of the tour's board of directors. Above all, he loved our game . . . we will sorely miss him, and our thoughts are with his family and friends."
Harrington, who ended that Irish Open drought of a home winner, tweeted: “So sorry to hear of the passing of a legend of Irish golf John O’Leary. He always had a kind word to say and gave you advice without preaching. He was a larger than life character whose stories will live one. May he Rest in Peace.”
Paul McGinley tweeted his condolences: “More sad news in the passing of my friend and fellow Irishman ‘Jonno’ O’Leary – always a dedicated follower of fashion and all round great guy,” while another former Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance also commiserated. “So sad to hear of the passing of one of my dearest friends and roommate for 10 years on tour. RIP my old pal John O’Leary,” posted the Scot.