Roddy L’Estrange: Vinny revels in memories of hero Christy O’Connor

Lads pay a ‘Homage to Himself’ at golfer’s beloved Royal Dublin club

On Monday morning, as first light lit up the crumpled links on Dublin’s Bull Island, a fourball of middle-aged men stood on the 16th tee and marvelled at its unique place in Irish golfing lore.

Of the quartet, no one was giddier than Vinny Fitzpatrick for he had been part of the 4,000-strong Armada drawn to Royal Dublin on a grey August Sunday 50 years earlier for the final day of the Carrolls International.

He’d seen history unfold.

He was eight years old at the time, not yet portly, and had gripped his dad Finbarr’s hand in wonder as Christy O’Connor swathed in cigarette smoke, conjured up not one, but two, of golf’s greatest finishes.

READ MORE

No one knew it but tucked away in his den at home, Vinny had a card of the course signed by Christy from that day. It was one of his most prized possessions.

In a hushed tone, Charlie St John Vernon called the lads to attention.

“From this very point, Himself made his move,” he said, pointing in the direction of the green, all of 280 yards away.

“In the morning, Christy drove the green and holed the putt for eagle. In the afternoon, he did the same again. Think about that, lads. Two eagles on the one hole in the same day. None of us have had two eagles in our whole career. Anyone even had one?”

The silence said it all.

"Not only that, but Christy birdied the 18th first time around, and then followed his afternoon eagle on the 16th with a birdie-eagle finish to beat Eric Brown by a shot.

Golfing scamps

“In all, Christy played the final three holes of his third and fourth rounds in eight under par. Eight under!”

The “Homage to Himself” had been convened by Charlie, a long-time RD member, who’d cleared things with the captain to allow three golfing scamps, Vinny, Brennie and Fran pay their respects to Christy.

Once the lads had cleared off before the first of the members came through all was fine. But on this mild May morning the links was deserted and there was time to walk the final three holes undisturbed.

The 16th, 17th and 18th at Royal Dublin are not easy. All are protected by bunkers and in the case of the 17th and 18th, there is out of bounds on the right and trouble on the left.

Thanks to an invite from Charlie, Vinny had once ventured out on the links, on a chill December morn a few years back armed with a pencil bag, a half dozen clubs and modest ambition.

He recalled a three-putt double bogey on the 16th, and then an ugly slice on the 17th which headed in the direction of the Blue Lagoon.

Most hackers would have given up the ghost but Vinny made for the whins for he was reduced to his last couple of Pinnacles and the fearsome 18th was still to come. It was then Vinny had his Himself moment.

As he snouted forlornly for his ball in the rough, a car pulled up, a window rolled down and Vinny heard a voice he recognised. “You’ll do well to find it there, son,” said Himself. “Tell me, do you regularly push your tee shots?”

Vinny nodded glumly. “I’ve more slices in me Christy than a lemon.”

At that, Himself got out of the car, reached for his boot and took out a wooden-headed driver.

“Here,” he said. “Come over to the side of the road and try this.”

Vinny did what he was told, gave it a lash, and almost toppled over. “Fore right,” he said self-mockingly.

Christy shook his head and smiled. “Never mind. I think we can sort that out,” he said. With that, Christy asked Vinny to assume his address position. He then tilted Vinny’s left shoulder up slightly and moved his head back a little.

“On the 18th, I want you to tuck your left shoulder under your chin on the backswing, and do the same with your right shoulder on your follow through.

“Don’t try and hit the ball hard, just say to yourself on the way back ‘open the door’ and then ‘close the door’ on the way down. You’ll see an improvement,’ he said.

As Himself headed off, it struck Vinny that the day was bitterly cold and yet there was Christy, well into his 80s, dispensing advice and ticking over. “What a legend,” he thought.

On the 18th tee that day, Vinny had been last to tee off. He was down to his final Pinnacle. “Open the door, close the door,” he said to himself, as he swung his driver.

What happened next was extraordinary. His ball flew long and straight, it cleared the rutty track crossing the fairway, and bounding, it disappeared from view, beyond the bunker patrolling the left side of the fairway.

Vinny used his driver for a second time to clear The Garden and when he made five, was afforded heroic status among the lads in Foley’s. On Monday, as he walked up the 18th again he thought how blessed he was to been enriched by Himself, the last of Vinny’s childhood sporting heroes of Dublin 3 to leave life’s great stage, following Tommy Eglington and Heffo.

By now, the sun had crept over the dunes and the links were bathed in sunlight. As the larks sang overhead, Vinny felt there was no better place to be.

“God bless ye, Christy,” he said quietly.