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  • Alistair Tait

RIP John O’Leary: thank you for your patience

John O’Leary gave new meaning to the word phlegmatic.

O’Leary, who died March 26 aged 70, was so laid back when I first met him he appeared to be almost going backwards. Maybe that’s why he put up with the idiotic, simplistic questions of a young journalist with such patience.

I travelled to O’Leary’s Esher flat early in 1990 for one of those “Where are they now?” pieces magazines run when they can’t think of anything more original. The piece was scheduled to run as part of an Irish Open preview. At the time, O’Leary was the last Irishman to win the Irish Open, which he achieved in 1982.

The Dubliner met me wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, a far cry from the loud colours he sometimes sported in his heyday. O’Leary belonged to the same sartorial school as Max Faulkner and Doug Sanders. I’d stupidly worn a jacket and tie.

If the six foot one inch player was expecting an afternoon of existential talk then he was sadly disappointed. He made me tea, offered me biscuits and sat patiently as I trotted out a stream of questions he could probably have answered in his sleep. He was polite, with no sneer of contempt to any of my dumb questions.

I was so green I didn’t realise O’Leary was chairman of the European Tour’s tournament committee, and as such wielded quite a bit of power in shaping European Tour policy. O’Leary, who would later go on to become a European Tour board member, was probably wondering why I wasn’t quizzing him on the hot topics of the day, like appearance money, and the tour venturing outside mainland Europe.

I wince now when I think of the article I produced, which has hopefully been lost in the midst of pre-digital time.

O’Leary did his level best to down play his Irish Open victory, even though it was the greatest moment of his career. He was convinced another Irishman would soon win the title, and rid him of annoying golf journalists like me. After all, Ronan Rafferty, David Feherty, Philip Walton, Eamonn Darcy, Christy O’Connor Jnr. and Des Smyth were all prominent European Tour players at that time.

It would take another 25 years for another Irishman, Padraig Harrington, to win his national championship.

I was fortunate enough to encounter O’Leary on numerous occasions afterwards. He was director of golf at The Buckinghamshire, home of the Ladies European Tour, and he would chat with me whenever I was down there. He was on a panel along with Tommy Horton, Bob Torrance, Alan Fine, John Paramor, Denis Pugh and others for Apollo Week Training School, which ran in the 1990s. This was one of the European Tour's best initiatives. Its purpose was to give young players the skills needed to take on the rigours of tour life. It ran for several years in Southern Spain and Portugal at the start of each season, before being sadly discontinued when the tour couldn’t find a sponsor.

During the day O’Leary would teach young tour pros on-course management. In the evenings he would settle back with a glass of wine or three – well, he was a Celt. I had the pleasure on a couple of occasions to share a few glasses of vino tinto with him. I remember sort of half apologising to him for my early interview. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here because I’d had a few too):

“Life is all about making mistakes. It’s what you learn from them that counts. That’s why these young pros are here, so we can make sure they don’t make the same mistakes we made starting out.”

My experience gels with that of England’s Peter Baker had when he first started out on the European Tour, which Baker tweeted upon hearing of O’Leary’s death.

“If you need anything or if I can help you just ask me. I’m sure that you are going to have a great career”... my first week on tour and the first words John O’Leary said to me. Pure class RIP Johno."

Baker wasn’t the only player to take to Twitter to pay their respects to a man who also won the 1975 Sumrie-Bournemouth Better Ball with Jack Newton and the 1976 Greater Manchester Open. Paul McGinley tweeted:

“Sad news in the passing of my friend and fellow Irishman ‘Jonno ‘ O'Leary – always a dedicated follower of fashion and all round great guy.”

Padraig Harrington said:

"So sorry to hear of the passing of a legend of Irish golf John O’Leary. He always had a kind word to say and gave you advice without preaching. He was a larger than life character whose stories will live on. May he Rest In Peace."

Sam Torrance tweeted:

So sad to hear of the passing of one of my dearest friends and roommate for 10 years on tour. RIP my old pal John O’Leary.”

Ditto. Thanks John for being so understanding to a young journalist all those years ago.

(Photograph courtesy of the European Tour.)

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