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TRIBUTE TO THE LATE JOHN O’LEARY

Wednesday, April 1, 2020
TRIBUTE TO THE LATE JOHN O’LEARY

Tony spoke to former Reuters golf correspondent Tony Jimenez about the sad passing of John O’Leary:

“John and I went back a long, long while - the best part of 50 years in fact. He and I shared a lot of good times together, especially down in South Africa, where his wife Ingrid was from.

The two of them met in South Africa, I think, and that’s a country I’ll always retain a real soft spot for. I remember being at the Holiday Inns tournament in Swaziland in the 1970s with John and Dr Christiaan Barnard, the man who performed the world’s first-ever heart transplant.

The late Dr Barnard was a keen golfer and the three of us played together in the pro-am. John and I spent a lot of time with Christiaan and his wife, eating out in the evening and generally enjoying each others’ company.

John, of course, didn’t have an overly long career as a professional golfer before he went into the administration side of things with the European Tour and later became head of the Tournament Players Committee.

I remember him as a really lovely guy, a softly-spoken Irishman. I never, ever saw him lose his temper and he was always good company. He was a great guy to travel with, one of the game’s true characters and John will be sorely missed.

I’ve lost a few great golfing pals in recent years, people like Brian Barnes, Tommy Horton and now John. These are sad times in more ways than one.

John was a good player. He made the 1975 Ryder Cup team and his glory day was winning the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1982. He was only the third Irishman to win the event and was the last one to do it until Padraig Harrington pulled off his victory in 2007.

Ireland have produced some special golfing characters down the years, people like John, Christy O’Connor senior, Christy O’Connor junior, Fred Daly, Joe and Roddy Carr and Ernie Jones, who was the pro at Bangor.

The whole Irish golfing family were terrific. It was another country I always enjoyed visiting. Golf is like a religion there and that was evident from the memorable atmosphere the galleries created in the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club.

I remember Christy senior, Ernie, Peter Green and I travelling together in South Africa in 1964-65. We rented a car from Harold Henning. It was a huge Ford Fairlane American specimen from the 1950s that had wings on.

It cost us 500 pounds and we all pitched in 125 pounds each. We were able to get four suitcases and four sets of golf clubs in the boot and, looking back, it summed up those pioneering early days as a travelling pro.

I was our designated driver for eight weeks, we drove from town to town and had a helluva time. We rented apartments and shared rooms to keep expenses down. Harold’s car also saved money on our expenses.

It seemed to use more oil than petrol and the tyres always seemed to be bald but, overall, it was a fantastic, unforgettable experience although it was also the time when I came closest to death.

We were in the middle of a 1,000-mile journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town. I was driving downhill at quite some speed and suddenly we were confronted by a set of road works.

Christy, Ernie and Peter were screaming ‘brake, brake’ but the brakes weren’t doing what they should have been doing and we just missed an oncoming car by a coat of paint.

It was a hairy moment and we all remembered it for a long time afterwards. In truth, we were lucky to be able to look back on it. I didn’t want to go into a skid and veer sideways and it was all I could do to get the car to come to a stop.

None of us ever forgot that incident. It was really scary but there was no great damage done in the end. We eventually came to a halt, everyone let out a massive sigh of relief and said Thank God we emerged unscathed."