CHICAGO l Let’s quickly dispense with the compulsories, to use an Olympic term, in talking about mid-amateur John O’Donnell. Yes, he is the apparel designer from Los Angeles who was featured on People Magazine’s 2008 “most eligible bachelor” list. And yes, he is the older brother of Hollywood actor Chris O’Donnell, of “Batman & Robin” fame.
That out of the way, let’s talk about O’Donnell’s golf, which is worthy of conversation. After all, this is a guy who has played in two U.S. Amateurs and three U.S. Mid-Amateurs, and who has won three club championships at Los Angeles Country Club, a place with more than its share of very good players. He didn’t get really serious about the game until he was in his mid 30s. And he has never spent serious time with a golf instructor, brand name or otherwise
For O’Donnell, 47, the 2012 Western Amateur was a homecoming. Born into an Irish Catholic clan of seven children, he spent a good deal of his childhood learning the game at a municipal par-3 course in suburban Chicago, where he played “sunup to sundown, 72 holes some days.”
When he graduated at age 12 to Exmoor Country Club, where the Western was played last week, he was startled to see just how well-manicured the first tee box was; he had never seen anything like it in his young life before. So began a lifelong love of the game of golf.
O’Donnell, affectionately known to all as “Johnnie O,” went to school at UCLA. After two failed attempts to walk on to the Eddie Merrins-coached golf team, he finally succeeded in his senior year, along with PGA Tour player Scott McCarron, who had lost his scholarship. O’Donnell didn’t make the traveling squad, but he got to play and practice at some great L.A. venues, including UCLA’s home course, Bel-Air. And he earned a Bruin team bag, which he thought “was pretty neat for a skinny kid from Chicago.”
O’Donnell is one of those people who has been able to merge golf and business. He is the founder and owner of johnnie-O, an apparel company that sells mostly golf shirts but also offers women’s and kids’ clothing and other accessories.
O’Donnell started the company in the mid 2000s after designing, for fun, a few shirts for a group of golf pals headed out on a golf-buddy trip. He created a logo of a surfer leaning against his board, staring off into the sun, and put it on the shirts.
Though he had never worked in the apparel business, and despite never having thought of himself as an entrepreneur, he decided to take a chance on what was becoming something more than just a hobby. He raised capital and began to sell into golf pro shops. In classic form, he started peddling shirts out of the back of his car. Today, his little business has five full-time employees, millions in annual sales, and a growing following. “We have lots of wood to chop” is how he describes the future growth opportunities for his company.
Johnnie-O is what O’Donnell calls “West Coast preppie,” conservative and relaxed clothing that is sold in golf shops and boutique apparels stores. Despite its California ethos and origins, he sells a lot of golf shirts in New York, Connecticut, North Carolina and Illinois, despite the lack of surfable waves. It is attractively priced, and the product sells through at a good enough velocity to keep his customers coming back. And despite the somewhat iconic “surfer dude” logo, O’Donnell does not claim to be a surfer. Clearly, he is a golfer.
Although O’Donnell never imagined getting into the apparel business, he thrives on working for himself and on building small enterprise. He loves the fact that his office is a driver, 5-iron from his bedroom, and that he usually wears jeans and sandals to work. You can tell he likes to compete, in business and in golf, and expects to succeed. He is the consummate salesman, always smiling, very optimistic. To meet John O’Donnell is to like him immediately.
He loves the entrepreneurial freedom, but it comes at a cost to his golf game, as there is little time to play and even less to practice. He was clearly punching above his weight last week at Exmoor, playing with the collegiate set as the oldest player in the field. But, he relished the challenge. “I love the discipline of having to score, of playing under the gun,” he told me before hitting his first tee shot.
O’Donnell was welcomed back warmly at Exmoor, with people frequently stopping him to say hello and inquire about his family. He opened with an 80, and brought it back in round two with a 1-over-par 73, but he did not survive the 36-hole cut. However, he has his eye on a return golf trip to Chicago this fall, as the U.S. Mid-Amateur will be played at Conway Farms GC. He thinks he has good karma there; he qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Merion from Conway Farms in 2005.
“The USGA events are the big ones,” he said. “Those are the events I point to.”
Here’s hoping this Chicago boy gets another trip home this fall.