There were a number of compelling stories behind the players atop the first-round leader board at the State Farm Senior Classic yesterday. None was more heart-wrenching than that of Christy O'Connor Jr., the 50-year-old Irishman in the lead by two strokes after shooting a 7-under 65 in the 54-hole event at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia.
O'Connor is playing here this week on a sponsor's exemption, only his sixth tournament on the Senior PGA Tour this season. A longtime veteran of the European PGA Tour, he had planned to go through senior qualifying school last fall to earn his playing card. If successful, he and his wife, Ann, were going to move to the United States for four or five years and enroll their 17-year-old son, Daren, in college here.
But last September, Daren was killed in a car accident back home. Christy, Ann and their other two children put their lives on hold as they mourned. Golf was no longer very important to O'Connor, though now he says it has helped him a lot in trying to cope with the death of his son.
"The loss is horrific," he said yesterday. "People say to me, `Play for him.' I don't know what to think. I chat to him every night. I still do. It's very tough."
Ann and the family are still in Ireland, and O'Connor returned to the game in April. He has commuted from Ireland to the United States six times this year on the generosity of tournament sponsors, but had only played in four regular tour events before coming to Columbia this week.
He has had third- and fourth-place finishes this year and has qualified to play in the U.S. Senior Open next week in Des Moines. A victory here would give him a 12-month exemption, through next year's State Farm Classic. He is allowed unlimited sponsor's exemptions on the se nior tour this season because of his earnings on the European tour.
O'Connor's competition will be formidable this weekend. Five players, including rookies Bruce Fleisher and Allen Doyle, the tour's top two money-winners, came in at 5-under 67 and were two shots behind after a wind-swept, humid round under gray skies.
The breezes did not hamper scoring on a day when 43 players in the field of 78 posted par or better, with 20 rounds in the sixties and a stroke average of 72.312 for the field.
Also in the group at 67 were Hubert Green, a two-time major champion on the regular tour; Bob Duval, the father of David Duval and a final-round contender here last year; and Japan's Isao Aoki, runner-up to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open.
A half-dozen players were at 68, including Washington native and Bladensburg High graduate Fred Gibson, '98 State Farm runner-up Walter Hall and Frank Conner, one of two men who has played in the U.S. Open for both golf and tennis.
O'Connor's name is well known in Ireland and Britain for several reasons. His uncle, the Christy O'Connor, played on 20 Ryder Cup teams and still can shoot his age -- or better -- at 75, recently qualifying for the Irish Open.
"It was difficult at first," O'Connor Jr. said of the constant comparisons to his uncle. "People would say, `Great shot, but that's not the way your uncle would have played it.' I went my own way and it was better that way to make my own stand."
O'Connor Jr. almost won the British Open in 1985 at Royal St. George's in England, finishing third, two strokes behind Sandy Lyle. He also became a national hero himself at the 1989 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England.
Playing against then-No. 1 Fred Couples in the singles competition on Sunday, O'Connor hit a stunning 2-iron stiff to the flagstick to earn a 1-up victory. His point clinched a 14-14 tie that allowed Europe to keep the Cup. A year later, he showed the victory wasn't a fluke, beating Couples again in the Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews by a 2-and-1 margin.
The Ryder Cup triumph over Couples "gave me a fairly big ride," O'Connor said. "People thought I shouldn't have beaten him, but I beat him again at Dunhill. I know he's gunning for me. . . . He's really a very good friend of mine."
O'Connor also could say the same about Hobbit's Glen on a day when he posted eight birdies, including four on his first five holes. His only glitches came with a three-putt from 30 feet for a bogey at the 177-yard 8th and a missed six-footer for birdie at the 390-yard second hole.
His longest birdie putt was an eight-footer at the 195-yard No. 4 after a 4-iron tee shot. He finished it all off at the 530-yard uphill 18th with a lovely 55-foot pitch from high grass in front of a greenside bunker that stopped 18 inches from the cup. He also had birdie chances at the 16th and 17th, both times barely missing 15-footers and settling for par.
"I'm very happy with my round," O'Connor said. "This is a very nice course, very similar to those in Ireland. To win would be a fantastic thrill. That is my wish."
CAPTION: Christy O'Connor lines up a putt on the 17th green. He had eight birdies in his round of 7-under 65.
CAPTION: "The loss is horrific," said O'Connor of the death of son Daren. "People say to me, `Play for him.' . . . I chat to him every night. I still do. It's very tough."