With the Horizon Irish Open set to get underway in just over a week’s time at the K Club, we’re counting down our top-10 from years gone by…..
8. O’Leary the only man to get the better of Portmarnock – 1982
The names of Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Christy O’Connor Sr., Tom Kite – all future World Golf Hall of Fame members, and Manuel Piñero – a then six-time European Tour winner who’d go on to win nine times and represent Europe twice in the Ryder Cup – all featured in the top-10 after 72 holes at Portmarnock, but the name of John O’Leary stood above them all.
With the famed links course showing its teeth all week, the Dubliner, the only man under par for the tournament, held a two stroke advantage on the 17th green but missed a six-footer for par and took a one-shot lead over England’s Maurice Banbridge to the 72nd hole.
Playing together, Banbridge’s drive flirted with the heavy rough but got an advantageous kick onto the short grass and O’Leary, second on the tee, split the fairway. Facing a strong right-to-left breeze and the pin cut back right, O’Leary selected 2-iron, struck it purely, and rode the wind to find the back left of the green leaving an uphill putt.
Banbridge followed, but left himself around 50 feet and knew, in all likelihood, he needed to hole it. The line was perfect, but, not daring to leave it short, the pace was a little strong. The ball caught the left side of the hole but the momentum carried it on and it hopped up and came to rest four feet past. He cleaned up for par, leaving the stage set for O’Leary.
From thirty feet, the pace was perfect and with two putts for the title, that was all he needed. He tapped in the six-incher as the crowd erupted and O’Leary scooped his ball from the hole, pirouetted and launched it into the delirious horde of spectators.
The only player in the field to break par, his one-under total was enough to secure a one-stroke victory over Banbridge with the trio of Faldo, Norman and O’Connor all two further adrift.
O’Leary’s win – his second and last European Tour victory – would see him become the first Irish winner since Christy O’Connor Jr. in 1975 and it would be a quarter of a century before another Irishman would take the honour of claiming victory on home soil.
Scottish legend and longtime O’Leary roommate Sam Torrance would be on hand to congratulate his good friend on the 18th green, and, like Torrance, O’Leary was there to greet his successor 25 years later when Padraig Harrington ended the Irish hoodoo, and O’Leary had the honour of presenting the trophy and figuratively passing the torch to his fellow Dubliner.
“I’ve had my time and they were special times. For the people who have made this great golfing country, it shouldn’t be 25 years since,” said O’Leary when he’d finally and happily shake off the status of ‘most recent home winner.’
O’Leary would go on to become a director on the European Tour, hugely contributing to its growth in the 34 years he’d hold the role until his passing in 2020, aged 70.
“He was a larger than life character whose stories will live one,” said Harrington. “May he Rest in Peace.”