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O'Connor Snags British Open

They say sport is a young man's game, and the maxim was proved on Sunday, even if the young man in question was 50 years old.

Christy O'Connor Jr. is a former Ryder Cup player who will forever occupy a place in the game for the 2-iron he hit on the 18th green to force a concession from Fred Couples in the singles in the 1989 Ryder Cup match at The Belfry.

But he lodged another claim to fame Sunday on the windswept links of Royal Portrush when he became the first Irishman to win the Senior British Open Championship.

O'Connor's closing 69 took him to a 6-under-par 282 total and a victory by three strokes over John Bland of South Africa. Gary Player, whose legendary competitiveness makes him an enduringly formidable foe at the age of 63, was third on 2 under, a shot ahead of England's John Morgan, the only other player to complete the tournament under par.

But however well O'Connor's closest pursuers played, the man who pushed him harder than anybody until catastrophe struck in the dying moments of the tournament was Bob Charles, the great left-handed New Zealander.

Charles, also 63, chased and pressured O'Connor in the last group on the course for all but three of the 18 holes. But Charles became the unhappy party to an extraordinary six-stroke swing that left O'Connor the clear winner.

Charles is undoubtedly one of the finest putters the game has ever seen, but this fabled part of his game that let him down when he needed it most. He missed from four feet for a birdie on the 11th after an eagle on the 10th, missed again from four feet for par on the 14th, and, astonishingly, let another birdie chance slip away from the same distance on the 15th.

He hit his par putt nine inches short from eight feet on the 16th to concede another stroke to O'Connor. Charles then watched helpless as O'Connor birdied the par-5 17th from four feet. But he could not have even begun to contemplate the fate that would befall him on the home hole.

He still had a genuine chance for second place on his own as he walked onto the 18th tee. In spite of all the frailties he had shown on the greens, he probably still fancied his chances.

And he took an eight.

Yes, eight.

First he drove into a ghastly lie in the rough. Then he chunked it out across the fairway and back into rough. And then hit his third into a bunker, failed to get out and escaped only with his fourth shot. His fifth went over the green, hit the sponsor's scoreboard, and from there he chipped on and missed from three feet for seven.

It dropped him from 3-under-par to 1 over and left O'Connor to temper hijoy with sympathy. "I'm so sad at what happened," he said. "It is no reflection of the way the man played all day. He played magnificently -- he is incredible for his age."

And so is O'Connor for his. This is his first full season as a senior golfer, and, even before this victory, he has given notice that he could become a power in the world game in the next few years by winning the State Farm Classic on the U.S. Senior PGA Tour last month.

He hit the ball as far as he has ever done in this championship and displayed a sure and confident touch on the greens, the department of the game that is so often eroded by the years.

In this last round, for example, he rolled in three birdie putts on the front nine as though he did not have a care in the world, then held the line on the back nine as others around him, notably Charles and Bland, were mounting challenges.

His only lucky break came on the par-3 14th, the dreaded "Calamity," when his tee shot appeared to be heading out of town on the left, only to reappear miraculously from the gallery into which it had plunged. A friendly foot might have helped -- the leather mashie, they call it.

O'Connor did not take full advantage of the situation, three-putting for a bogey four. But it could have been a whole lot worse. It was not, as it could well have been, a total calamity at Calamity.

That potential danger moment more or less successfully negotiated, he settled himself, refused to get flustered when Bland momentarily closed the gap to one stroke with a birdie on 17, and duly picked up a shot at the same hole.

Bland finally faded from the picture when he bogeyed the18th by failing with an 18-foot par putt. Now O'Connor could take seven and still win the tournament; he needed only four.

After it was all over, he was full of emotion as he dedicated his triumph to the memory of his son, Darren, the Irish Boys champion, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 17 on Sept. 7.

"I've used up all Darren's good luck," he said. "I've been praying to him so hard, and I feel he is with me today. He gives me fantastic strength. Part of this championship is his. "

"I believe he is helping me. I don't believe I would have had the strength to win these two tournaments without him. So maybe he is not so far away from us."

It was a poignant and moving moment. At times like this, things like victory and defeat in a golf tournaments, and quadruple-bogey eights, seem like a total and utter irrelevance.

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