O'Connor sets himself apart

Irishman's 65 good for two-shot lead in State Farm

July 03, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There were a lot of familiar names at 5-under-par 67 after yesterday's opening round of the $1.3 million State Farm Senior Classic at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club. Bob Duval, father of the world's top-ranked player. Former U.S. Open and PGA champion Hubert Green. Isao Aoki, the man who dueled Jack Nicklaus down the stretch in the 1980 U.S. Open.

There also were the lesser known Bruce Fleisher and Allen Doyle, the top two money-winners on this year's Senior Tour. But there was only one name at the top of the leader board, at 7-under-par 65: Christy O'Connor.

It's a name only a Ryder Cup historian, or a European Tour devotee, would recognize. He's the chap who at 41 beat Fred Couples at The Belfry in 1989, the nephew of a legendary Irish player of the same name.

He's also the only player among the leaders invited here on a sponsor's exemption, and will try to become the first to win a Senior event that way since Tony Jacklin in 1994.

"That would make my year," O'Connor said.

It's been a difficult year for O'Connor. A man who chose to remain in Europe rather than try to play the PGA Tour because of his family, O'Connor lost the youngest of his three children in an automobile accident last September. Daren O'Connor was 17.

"That set me back a lot," said O'Connor. "It's still pretty horrific People say, `Play for him.' I don't know how to do that. I've just got to chat to him every night. It's very tough."

His son's death caused O'Connor, who turned 50 last August, to give up plans of trying to qualify for the Senior Tour last fall. It meant O'Connor had to get into some tournaments through sponsor's exemptions and others on the quality of his play.

With exemptions, O'Connor finished tied for fourth at the Home Depot Invitational in late April and tied for third at the Nationwide Championship in early May. O'Connor said he has been back and forth between Europe and the United States six times since last year's PGA Championship.

"Last week, I just couldn't sleep, I couldn't get comfortable," O'Connor said, in reference to a disappointing performance in the Ford Senior Players Championship, where he finished tied for 64th. "Hopefully this week I'll be back to the American ways."

Playing a course that reminded O'Connor of those he played back home -- "with a little wind, but without the humidity," he joked -- O'Connor seemed much at ease. After getting to 5-under with a birdie on the par-4 13th, O'Connor broke away from the pack.

O'Connor took the lead with a birdie on the par-5 15th and after nearly reaching the green on his second shot at the 530-yard par-5 18th hole, O'Connor chipped from 70 feet to within a foot of the cup, tapping in for birdie.

"It's a thrill to have the lead, but it adds a little pressure," O'Connor said as he left the green after tying the course record.

It certainly isn't anything new to O'Connor, who won six European Tour events to help earn him his associate member status on the Senior Tour. The toughest part of his career was playing in the shadow of his uncle, who was considered the Sam Snead of Ireland because of his natural swing.

O'Connor compared it to what it must have been for the sons of Jack Nicklaus to try and make their way in American golf.

"It was difficult at first," recalled O'Connor. "No matter how good a shot I hit, they'd say, `Your uncle would have put it in from the other side.' If I hit it 6 feet short, they'd say, `He would have hit it 6 feet long.' "

Like his uncle, who earlier this year qualified for the Irish Open at age 75, O'Connor came close to winning the British Open, finishing third behind Sandy Lyle in 1985 at Royal St. George's. He also finished tied for fifth and tied for eighth in two Opens at Royal Birkdale. "I threw it away in 1985," said O'Connor, who played in 21 British Opens and on two Ryder Cup teams. "I made 37 putts the final day and lost by two shots."

The shot O'Connor is most famous for hitting was a 2-iron approach to the 18th green at The Belfry. He wound up making birdie to beat Couples, then the world's No. 1-ranked player, 1-up. O'Connor shot 66 that day. His victory forged a 14-14 tie and helped Europe retain the Ryder Cup.

O'Connor said his biggest thrill didn't happen in the British Open or the Ryder Cup. It came when he won the Kenya Open in 1990, when his wife and three children were waiting for him on the 18th green. Ann O'Connor is expected to be here for tomorrow's final round.

As he walked off the 18th green at Hobbit's Glen yesterday, O'Connor shook hands with John Mathews, the tournament executive director. O'Connor thanked him again for the invitation to play.

"You're making me look good," said Mathews.

O'Connor smiled broadly.

"I hope Sunday night I'll be hugging you," O'Connor said.

Not to mention the champion's Waterford crystal trophy.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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