Of all the great golfers I have seen in more than half a century of covering the game, I believe the best never to win a major was the majestic Irishman Christy O’Connor Sr. A two-time winner of the European Tour’s Order of Merit (1961, ’62) and a member of the Great Britain and Ireland team in 10 consecutive Ryder Cups from 1955 to 1973 (a record until Nick Faldo broke it in 1997), O’Connor was a superb ball striker who particularly shone in the tempestuous weather so common to golf in the British Isles.
I also believe that if O’Connor had not fallen victim to a hard-drinking lifestyle, he might have won twice as many events. As it was, he earned 26 international victories, including the 1956 and ’59 British Masters, and he was among the top six finishers at the Open Championship on seven occasions between 1958 and 1969.
Certainly “Himself,” as dear Christy was always referred to by his adoring countrymen, was the best golfer on a hangover I ever saw. That’s simply the way it was in an era when there was no such thing as a touring professional in Great Britain and Ireland. Tournaments back then, including the Open, typically finished with 36 holes on Friday, and players were generally club professionals on leave until the weekend.
O’Connor could be the fiercest of competitors when he put his mind to it. I witnessed that fire one miserable day in 1955 at the long-defunct Penfold-Swallow tournament at Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club. It was a landmark day in British and Irish golf history, because the promoters—golf ball manufacturer Penfold and rainwear maker Swallow—were offering, for the first time ever, a four-figure check (£1,000) to the winner. And O’Connor was hell-bent on winning it.
Christy and I sat down to lunch after the third round. A devout Roman Catholic, he was horrified to learn fish was no longer on the menu. He bit his tongue, thought for a minute, then asked the waitress to pile as many mashed potatoes as possible on the biggest dinner plate she could find, and also bring him a half-pound of butter, still in the wrapper. She scurried away and returned with an enormous pile on a carving dish. O’Connor promptly patted it into the shape of a volcano, carved out the core and emptied the butter into it.
The antithesis of the modern-day tour pro for whom the fitness trailer is an integral part of his pre-round routine, O’Connor scarfed every mouthful of the potatoes, got up from his chair and marched boldly through the gale and sideways rain to secure the victory. The celebration, as usual, went on long into the night.
My most bizarre Christy O’Connor story occurred at the 1965 British Open at Royal Birkdale, where the legendary Australian Peter Thomson won his fifth championship over the same course he won his first on, 11 years earlier. Going into the final 36 holes on Friday, O’Connor had recorded rounds of 69 and 73 to stand tied with Thomson (74-68), two strokes behind the leaders, Bruce Devlin and defending champion Tony Lema. Several other strong contenders, including Welshman Brian Huggett and Argentinean Roberto De Vicenzo, were also in the mix.
I arrived at the course early that day and was greeted by an Irish writer friend emerging from the locker room, shaking his head, clearly in shock. I asked what was wrong and he replied that he had found O’Connor standing at the sink in his skivvies, shaving and cleaning up from what had apparently been a rough night. It seems the great man had become so inebriated, he could not locate his hotel. “So I found that lovely deep bunker by the 9th green and had a wonderful night’s sleep,” O’Connor explained. Even in such a ragged condition, Christy had final rounds of 74 and 71 to finish two shots behind Thomson, tied for second with Huggett. It was his best finish in the Open—and clearly he had fun along the way.