A kind of homecoming for Seniors' O'Connor


Christy O'Connor Jr. played a different role yesterday afternoon than he normally does during a Senior PGA Tour event. He took his wife, Ann, and their son Nigel into Washington to see a few of the sights. They would start with the White House and go from there.

"Hopefully, Mr. Clinton will be outside waiting for me," O'Connor said with his typical wit. "It's on TV every single hour at home, something to do with the American government. It's a nice feeling to take some photographs and be a real tourist for a change."

It was at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia that the 51-year-old Irishman played the accidental tourist in last year's State Farm Senior Classic. He came with a sponsor's exemption, courtesy of tournament director John Mathews, and left with the first-place trophy.

"It was like a lifeline," O'Connor said of the invitation from Mathews. "He threw me a line and thank God I held onto it."

O'Connor's one-shot victory over Bruce Fleisher was the highlight of his rookie season on the Senior PGA Tour and one of the most heartrending for those who witnessed it.

When O'Connor made his final par putt after Fleisher's 20-foot chip for eagle fell inches short of the cup, O'Connor pointed toward the heavens as the tears began gushing from his eyes. O'Connor said later he was pointing toward his late son, Darren, and later dedicated the victory to him.

"I always spoke to him," O'Connor recalled yesterday. "I still do."

Darren O'Connor, who died the previous September in an automobile accident near the family's home in Galway, would have turned 19 next week.

"We're getting on all right," said O'Connor. "It's a very sad time. He would be 19 next Friday. It's always a thing in your heart, naturally, a terrible feeling. It will always be there. I hope he is with us in some way. He was with us here last year, and I have no doubt about it."

O'Connor will certainly be one of the crowd favorites - and tournament favorites - when the $1.35 million event begins tomorrow. He will have more support than he did last year, with Ann in the gallery and 21-year-old Nigel carrying his father's bag.

Coming off an eighth-place tie at the U.S. Senior Open - his best finish this season - O'Connor is beginning to feel more confident about his game. Coming back to Hobbit's Glen has made him more comfortable with his surroundings.

"It has kind of a home feeling, this place," said O'Connor. "The whole ambience, it's a come over and have fun place, rather than one has to be careful here. The guys who run the tournament, it's a real festival."

O'Connor's other victory on the PGA Senior Tour last year was also emotional. It came a month later at the Foremost Insurance Championship near Grand Rapids, Mich. He dedicated that win to Miles Murphy, a good friend who died of cancer during the event.

"Even though it only gives you an exemption to that day the following year, you still feel a winner, you are a winner," said O'Connor, who finished 26th on the money list with $710,749 and is currently 30th with $748,839. "You're more accepted on the tour. People get to know you from the TV. And to prove to yourself that you can still win is very important to me."

O'Connor's win at last summer's Senior British Open at Royal Portrush in Ireland, played out before a huge crowd of family and friends, evoked nearly as many tears and ultimately provided him the opportunity to make another homecoming this summer.

It gave him the chance to play again in the British Open, later this month at the Old Course in St. Andrews.

"My first Open [was there] 30 years ago," said O'Connor. "I played with Jack [Nicklaus] and he won."

But O'Connor keeps coming back to what happened to him over those three sweltering days in Columbia as what defined the rejuvenation of his career and, given the personal tragedy he had endured, his life.

He shot an opening-round 65 to take a two-shot lead over Fleisher and Allen Doyle, the Senior Tour's two-leading money-winners at the time, built it to three over Fleisher as temperatures soared over 100 degrees and held on to win with a final-round 67 and a three-round total of 18-under par 198.

Asked if he surprised himself at the time, O'Connor said yesterday, "I did because I thought I wouldn't be 100 percent with it. We were still in mourning. I kind of hung in there and got help from the man upstairs. I really needed help on the back nine."

The accidental tourist had arrived.

Schedule: Tomorrow-Sunday

Site: Hobbit's Glen Golf Club (6,983 yards, par 72), Columbia

Purse: $1.35 million

Winner's share: $202,500

TV: ESPN (Tomorrow, 2-4 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 5:30-7 p.m.)

Defending champion: Christy O'Connor

Tickets: 410-964-0900

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