Just talking to Himself

 

Wise Words

`I always said the more you practised, the more natural you got,' he says. `But if you tell me to do one thing, and you tell me to do another thing, how can I have a natural swing?'

The distant drums of more civil war are beating again far to the north of Dublin on this July day, where angry young men are torching cars, hurling rocks and directing sniper fire at riot police on the outskirts of Portadown. To the west, in Galway, the owner of an ale house nurses a public relations hangover. He tried, and failed, to convert his establishment into Ireland's first "smokeless" pub. It's been in all the papers.

But here in the Republic, a summer morning's mist is gently falling out on the Bull Island. Behind the grassy dunes which separate Royal Dublin Golf Club from the fortified sand banks guarding entry to the city at the mouth of the River Liffey, Christy O'Connor Snr walks along the beach with Ruffy, his wild-eyed border collie.

O'Connor wears an old blue windbreaker and plain grey slacks. He is 73, but he moves, almost like a boxer, with the balance and athleticism of a man half his age. The hair on his sloping head has thinned, leaving septuagenarian ears to fend for themselves against the elements. But his shoulders are broad. His eyes are clear. And the Irish in his voice knifes through the heavy air like the forged steel blade of a one-iron.

The man never won a major championship. He confounded the Lords of the Masters for years, turning down at least 10 invitations to play in their tournament. And his nephew, Christy Jr, is better known in America by all but the keenest among our golfing cognoscenti.

But in Ireland, Christy Snr is a national treasure. He will charm you if you earn his confidence. But he won't suffer fools gladly. Many of his friends refer to him as the "Great Man". But the preferred local second reference is simply "Himself".

"I used to hit balls out here years ago," O'Connor says, eyes sweeping past the port waters and off toward the Irish Sea. "If your grip is loose on this kind of hard sand, you find out right away." Ben Hogan said the secret was in the dirt.

Christy O'Connor Snr, who between 1951 and 1973 finished in the top 25 at the British Open 19 out of 23 times, practised on beaches. "There must be some secret," says the man who played on a record 10 straight Ryder Cup teams before Great Britain and Ireland finally began recruiting the rest of Europe in 1979. Dirt . . . packed sand . . . whatever.

O'Connor insists only this: in the end, the secrets the game reveals to the very best are secrets those players must discover for themselves. "I always said the more you practised, the more natural you got," he says. "But if you tell me to do one thing, and you tell me to do another thing, how can I have a natural swing?"

A natural swing, O'Connor says, is the by-product of repetition and its influence on the computer that is the brain. He pauses for effect. Then, in a lowered voice, he ticks off the components. "Hands . . . Legs . . . Eyes . . . Balance . . . Set-up . . . There you are." Simple words to play by. And easy for Himself to say. But monumentally easier said than done for everyone else.

"I think the secret is the ability in any game, whether it's boxing or football, any game you play, you must be determined to be successful at it," he says. "If there's a secret, that is it."

Padraig Harrington, one of Ireland's growing crop of young stars, was 15 years old when he first met and played golf with the Great Man. He still keeps a picture of O'Connor on a wall at his Dublin home.

But his most vivid memory of O'Connor remains from the blustery winter day several years ago when he ventured out to Royal Dublin to watch O'Connor hit practice balls. It was January. And a particularly nasty and chill wind was whipping the sand around the marram grasses into full distemper.

"Most people wouldn't have let their dog - or cat - out in that weather," Harrington recalled. "And Christy was out there hitting shots. They were beautiful shots. That was what was fascinating me.

"Nobody in the world could play this one particular shot. He was hitting a, maybe, 140-yard shot with a six-iron. He was holding it into the wind with a low draw. One after the other, after the other, after the other.

"Then he hit a few fades. And I don't think anybody could have played them as well as he was playing them at that particular point. It was just spectacular. Here was a man in his 60s at the time. And that did fascinate me - that he did have the will to go out there and hit a few shots."

Specific shots. "I never hit a practice shot," O'Connor had written in his autobiography years earlier, "unless I had a specific target to aim at or an idea in my mind as to what type of shot I wanted to hit."

The more Harrington talked about O'Connor, the more dreamlike his words became. And the longer you talked with O'Connor out on Bull Island, the more you began to feel the almost mystical aura that surrounds him.

By all accounts, O'Connor was, and still is, a hard-knocking, hard-drinking man. But all those years ago, growing up near the first tee of the Galway Golf Club, he taught himself to make the ball do magical things with a handsy swing that earned him yet another nickname: Wristy Christy.

Not that he lacked for fundamentals. Watching O'Connor on display at the pro-am prior to the recent Irish Open was a revelation. His drive into the wind on the first hole measured 260 yards. And it hissed when it left the clubface. O'Connor still takes a full turn, gets the club well past parallel and appears to milk the grip in the transition from backswing to forward swing. Former Ryder Cup teammate Tony Jacklin once said it reminded him of watching a man play a piccolo.

Meanwhile, back at the beach on Bull Island, Ruffy is restless. It is time for Christy O'Connor's good walk to remain unspoiled. Himself extends a beefy hand to his visitor. The grip is not loose. "Got what you came for?" he says. And away he goes.

Nobody knows when the trouble to the North will subside. But Christy O'Connor is at peace. The professional battles he waged as a poor club pro out of tiny Knocknacarra have been fought and recorded for posterity. The Open Championship took place at Royal Birkdale again this year where O'Connor finished 20th in 1954. He wound up third there in 1961 and tied for second there in 1965.

In 1971, at the then reasonably advanced age of 48, O'Connor tied for 35th at the British Open won by Lee Trevino at Birkdale. O'Connor won almost 40 tournaments worldwide in his prime, and followed that with six British Senior PGA victories. Until Harrington and Paul McGinley captured the World Cup last fall at Kiawah Island, no Irish pair had done so since O'Connor and Harry Bradshaw won in Mexico City in 1958.

Fact is, you can advance a compelling argument that Christy O'Connor Snr - not Colin Montgomerie nor Phil Mickelson nor anybody else - is the "Best Player Never To Win a Major". And you should mean it as a compliment.

O'Connor says he didn't play in the Masters because it was always early in the European season and the cost was prohibitive back then. He will even quote the price for a round trip plane ticket from Dublin to America in the early 1960s (£770) compared to today (£300).

But there are those close to him who suggest O'Connor suffered from a fear of failure that afflicted many of the top players on the Continent in the Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus era. "The Europeans were always afraid of the Americans then," says Dermot Gilleece, of The Irish Times.

"That's probably true," says Peter Oosterhuis, who along with Jacklin helped pioneer a change in attitude among the Europeans toward playing in America. "But you have to remember Christy was a very easygoing guy that way, who was very happy with what he was able to achieve."

"Christy was a good player," Nicklaus says. Not great? "Great players play in major championships," Nicklaus says. How great, then, would he have been if he had regularly travelled to Augusta and the US Open and the PGA? "There's no way to judge that," Nicklaus says.

There is a suspicion that Nicklaus and others looked askance at O'Connor's fondness for drink. There is a suspicion, too, this could have had something to do with why O'Connor never captained a Ryder Cup side. "There was nothing I liked more than a few quiet pints after a hard day's golf," O'Connor said years ago. And he never apologised for it.

O'Connor remains married to same the woman, the former Mary Collins, he wed 44 years ago. "Best thing he ever did," says Gilleece. And they live in the same house they purchased in 1959. It is less than three miles from Royal Dublin.

To put it plainly, there is little, if any, evidence to suggest O'Connor was a drunk. He busies himself these days with corporate outings. And his Links Golf Society is a driving force in Dublin charity fund-raising circles.

In 1976, Andrew Chandler was a young European professional tapped on the shoulder to fill out the professional foursome on a holiday cruise ship which was to sail in and around the Greek Islands. When the ship stopped, Chandler, Clive Clark, Peter Townsend and Christy Snr would get off and play the local golf course in front of adoring crowds.

It was kind of a "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf Goes Aegean". "Christy easily drank more than the three of us combined," Chandler says. "And he never altered his comportment or congeniality." Moreover, Chandler adds, O'Connor shot the low score every day. "He was just cruising."

Chandler has successfully reinvented himself as the agent for Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and a stable of other top young European players. At the pro-am before the Irish Open, Chandler spotted O'Connor near the putting green. The two hadn't visited in years. You could have knocked Chandler over with a feather when Himself approached, leaned over and asked impishly, "You're doin' well?"

O'Connor, Chandler says, "is still strong as an ox. And he's still sharp." And he still plays golf when and where he wants. Which is all O'Connor ever wanted, even if his act never played itself out on the world stage. "I was consumed by golf from the moment I set eyes on it," he said years ago.

That is still the case today. And Himself is determined that will not change. There is nothing secret about that at all.

Reprinted by permission of Golfweek magazine in the US.