GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK | The Travis Invitational is one of those tournaments that seek out contestants who are good guys, just as they are good golfers. Fellows who play hard on the course, but who also get the social aspect of the event and enjoy mingling with members of the host club as well as fellow competitors when their rounds are done. Ones who are inclined to head to the sumptuous bar in the museum-like clubhouse at the Garden City Golf Club once the day’s putts are holed, instead of heading to the range.
Irishman Eoghan (pronounced “Owen”) O’Connell is just one of those golfers. Born in Cork and raised on the links of Ballybunion, where he honed his punchy, all-weather swing as a young man when he wasn’t toting bags as a caddie, O’Connell was for a time one of the best amateur golfers in the Emerald Isle.
The son of a farmer and the Irish Boys Champion in 1984, he shot back-to-back 65s at North Berwick three years later to qualify for the 1987 Open Championship. O’Connell also was undefeated in four matches as a member of the victorious 1989 GB&I Walker Cup team, even halving a match with Phil Mickelson, and a medalist at the 1989 U.S. Amateur at Merion in 1989.
The Corkman turned pro shortly after that event and played on the European PGA Tour for eight years, from 1990 to 1997 before a wrist injury led to his losing his tour card – and then to giving up the game for a spell. In time, he started playing again. After regaining his amateur status, he began competing in various mid-am events, often with great success. For example, O’Connell won the Coleman Invitational at Seminole in 2005 and 2006.
Clearly, O’Connell had more than enough game for the folks who run the Travis. And when he played in the event for the first time, in 2006, he demonstrated that he possessed that other element they like so much in their invitees, that sense of comprehending the great game of golf as it exists when the clubs are put away and the first pints are drawn.
“Eoghan was playing John McClure in the finals and was 1 up after 17 holes when it started raining hard,” recalls Patrick Fogarty, chairman of the Travis Invitational Tournament and a longtime Garden City Golf Club member. “Play was suspended, and the players came into the clubhouse to wait it out. You could see Eoghan sheepishly looking around when he walked in, wondering whether he should get something to drink.
“He wasn’t sure about the protocol. Well, Eoghan ordered a Guinness. Then another. After 40 minutes, the weather cleared, and they went back out to play 18. McClure made a three for par, but Eoghan made a great up-and-down for a three of his own and the win.”
“He’s a heck of a player, and a heck of a good guy,” adds former Garden City president Mike Sherin. “And he really embodies what this tournament is all about.”
Now 44, O’Connell has played good golf for most of his life. The game came naturally to the man whose given name is Gaelic for “Eugene.” He earned a golf scholarship from Wake Forest two years after his Irish Boys win, and he later landed a spot on the Irish squad that captured the European Amateur Team Championship. Then, of course, there was his stint on the Walker Cup, and one of the highlights of that event was his halving Mickelson.
“Phil gave me about a two-and-a-half footer on the last hole,” he says. “That was very nice of him.”
At the point, the golfing world seemed like O’Connell’s oyster. But then he started having problems with his left wrist. “It got weaker and more and more sore and finally broke down,” he says. “I lost my card and more or less stopped playing.”
O’Connell only started teeing it up with any sort of regularity again after surgery in 2004. It allowed him to begin playing again, though his wrist remained so weak that he was unable to hit more than a few warm-up balls before a round and could not play more than a few days in a row. Still, he was able to begin competing again, as an amateur and out of his new home in Florida, where he had relocated with his American-born wife – and where they are raising their five children.
While O’Connell is no longer a golf professional, the game is very much his profession. He is a partner at the Fox Club in Palm City, Florida, a private club with a membership roster replete with good players who enjoy teeing it up on the old Roy Case golf course that O’Connell and his good friend and business partner Darren Clarke bought in 2004 and then revamped. In addition, O’Connell is chairman of the Eligo Club, whose members have access to more than two-dozen top golf courses around the world.
At the same time, golf is very much a recreation for O’Connell. He’s a member of Pine Valley and Tralee as well as the Fox Club, which has hosted the International Four-ball since 2005. He’s a regular at the esteemed amateur invitationals. And as he showed in his very first Travis, he’s a fellow who has long been as much about the good times after a round as he is about the game when it is actually being played.
He is most definitely one of those guys.