John O'Leary: Rookies of the 70s and the rookies of today are two totally different prospects

Newstalk.com speaks to the 1975 Ryder Cup team member about his experience at the event and Europe's chances in Hazeltine

John O'Leary

Image: Inpho

Darren Clarke described the decision-making process regarding his wildcard picks as "one of the most difficult" in his career thus far.

Thomas Pieters, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood have all been drafted in to bolster his squad. Europe boast six rookies in their team in the form of Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Chris Wood, Masters champion Danny Willett, as well as Pieters.

Former Ryder Cup team member, Ireland's John O'Leary, says that there are substantial differences in the capabilities of rookies over the last 40 years.

"I think [the picks] were excellent," he tells Newstalk.com. "I feel bad for Russell Knox, but I’m a huge fan of young Pieters. I think he’s an amazing talent."

The US chase their first title in eight years and the last time they overcame the Europeans was on home soil in Valhalla.

"I think it’s not going to be easy on them. They're got huge expectations, they’ve brought Davis Love III back again. It’s going to be very tough for them I think.

"It’ll depend how they react on the week, it’s as simple as that. It’s so hard predict from one week to the next who’s going to be up there. Players have bouts of form in the spring and suddenly by the summer they’re not playing any good.

"That’s why young Pieters [for Europe] has arrived at the right time because he’s been tremendous. He’s super talented and arrived in top form.

"When you look at him, he's had the benefit of going to college in America, playing there and he’s even beat Jordan Spieth. The rookies of the 70s and the Rookie of today are two totally different people."

O'Leary was part of the 1975 British and Irish Ryder Cup team which were beaten by the US and he says that a lot of the progress European golf has made is in stark contrast to the 1970s.

"I qualified by earning sufficient points to qualify for the team which is nice, as opposed on relying on a captain's pick. It was a very different world to today.

"We were in the situation where two or three of the players in the team had never played in America before. We played in Laurel Valley where Arnold Palmer started his golf and he was captain of the American team at the time.

"I had been fortunate, I had worked down in Florida between 1970 and 1971 so I would have had experience of the States, which is very unlike what happens today.

"That’s due to the great work of the golfing unions and federations across Europe that give more opportunities to younger people and also the fact that there’s more freedom of travel. That made things an awful lot easier.

"When we got on with the matches, I played with Tommy Horton in one foursome against Lee Trevino and JC Snead. There was no doubt about it, the equipment they used was superior. They had more choice and there was no internet to buy top stock like there is today. They were always five years ahead of us about the equipment they used.

"I played with Christy O’Connor Jr and he became a very good friend. He played against Johnny Miller and Tommy Weiskopf. Unfortunately he didn’t get a result, but all-in-all the feeling I had by the end of the week was ‘if only this had lasted a bit longer’. The experience was invaluable and a lot of the players on the American team became good friends. It was altogether a totally different experience to what goes on today."

Brian Barnes, pipe in mouth, follows through after blasting out of a sand trap during a Ryder Cup match at Laurel Valley Golf Club, Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Barnes beat Jack Nicklaus twice on the final day of the competition, 4 and 2 in the morning, and 2 and 1 in the afternoon. Image: RAD / AP/Press Association Images

O'Leary spent a lot of time with the late Christy O'Connor Jr, who left us this January, and remembers fondly the time they spent together.

"We always had great fun, an enormously fun time together. I can only say that Christy Jr made the best of everyday. Life on tour was great, he was multi-talented man. He was a great singer and could play any instrument. We had a lot of fun.

"The enduring memories I had were the friendships that I made. I practiced with Jack Nicklaus who was in that team and I practiced with him at The Open after that with Lee Trevino. I saw Tommy Weiskopf the other day." 

Christy O'Connor Jr. is one of the legendary figures in Irish sport as well as Irish golf which has grown enormously in the last 30 years. Waterford's Seamus Power is the latest Irishman to win his PGA Tour card after finishing in the top 25 of the moneylist of the Web.com Tour.

"He did so well in the Olympics. That was terrific. If you go back in time too, certainly when I played in 1975 there always seemed to be two or three players to make the Ryder Cup team.

"The opportunities that Ken Schofield [Director of the Europan Tour] has put in place for European Tour members could never be exaggerated. We never had those opportunities.

"I’ll never forget Sam Torrance coming third in the Order of Merit and not getting into the Masters. That sadly happened in that era that I played in. Now if you finish third there, you would be in automatically." 

It goes without saying that time on the Tour, in particular for the Ryder Cup, was markedly different for players back then. One such example was the restrictions they imposed on the players.

"I remember there were situations that would be quite unheard of today.

"My girlfriend who I was living with and who later became my wife, Ingrid, wasn’t allowed to come on the trip. I mean, you couldn’t believe something like that could happen today. It was because we weren’t married.

"That was the world we lived in. I remember, we got two Nylon shirts and had to play in very warm temperatures.

"Looking beyond that, because such a rumpus was kicked up about my girlfriend rules changes came much later in the day. We became independent of the PGA who were making the rules then and it was part of the formation of the European Tour that that all changed.

"That rule changed when Tony Jacklin came in as captain. He said he’d captain the team provided that they travel on concord and other things, it helped to change a system which was totally imbalanced.

"The biggest thing that I’ll regret was that Ingrid wasn’t able to travel after her having spent so much time supporting me. The European Tour pulled away from the PGA shortly after that.

"As a result of that my late mother who would have come to the Ryder Cup, also couldn’t come. If my girlfriend couldn’t go, my mother couldn’t either. That wasn’t such a great memory."

Darren Clarke becomes the second consecutive Irishman to captain a Ryder Cup team and O'Leary was quick to point out that the role of captain and administration is not one that should be underestimated.

"We couldn’t have asked for a better captain in Bernard Hunt. Sometimes I feel it’s the backroom team really and what I mean by that is a lot of the events are led by Richard Hills who has been the Ryder Cup director for many years. He makes sure that the comfort level was total.

"The captain says to the director, ‘I want to implement all of these things, can you get them in place for me?’. I say this a lot, but a lot of it is down to the administration behind it. The direction from the captain of course but the administration from the captain to be able to put all these things in place.

"We’ve also always been blessed in Europe that there’s always been a wonderful atmosphere on the Tour between players. I would say stronger than anywhere else in the world."