AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Six amateurs played in the 2018 Masters. One, Doug Ghim, made the 36-hole cut, although his 296 total left him 23 strokes behind winning professional Patrick Reed.
This year’s field once again includes six amateurs. Even though Bobby Jones was heralded for making a triumphant return to competition when he played in the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament (and 12 Masters in all), these days amateurs are mostly window dressing. Nobody on Augusta’s green earth expects an amateur to challenge for the Masters title, let alone win it.
Even our contemporary language reflects the reality of golf today. No amateur has ever won the Masters. Oh, Matt Kuchar made some noise in 1998 when he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and it’s not unusual to see the parenthetical (a) on the first page of the leaderboard in the first round. But victory is not part of the vocabulary. Amateurs talk about making the cut. This is their widely accepted goal. This is the extent to which they dream.
One of this year’s amateur competitors is Kevin O’Connell of Jacksonville, Fla. Because amateurs are becoming an endangered species in today’s Masters landscape, O’Connell and his five mates should be celebrated simply for being here.
How many will make the cut? One, perhaps two. That is reality. Amateurs today, professionals tomorrow. The experience of playing week after week is the ingredient that ultimately makes them successful touring pros.
O’Connell, though, has taken the definition of amateur golf to a new level. Like all of us, he started his golf life as an amateur. Then he turned pro. Then he regained his amateur status. Now he is talking about going pro once again.
There is nothing wrong with this. It has taken him several years to visualize his golf path. Now he is 30 years old. He qualified for the Masters because he won the 2018 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
Nobody can say he isn’t mature. He has concentrated heavily on the mental side of golf. He is prepared to surprise a few observers.
Wednesday at Augusta National has turned into golf’s premier fun day. Golfers compete in the annual Par-3 Contest. Their wives and children caddie for them.
O’Connell’s wife, Michelle, caddied and served as informal cheerleader for Team O’Connell. “I love it,” she said.
Well, of course she loves it. That’s because Wednesday isn’t Thursday. The difference between the Par-3 Contest and the first round of the Masters is monumental. But O’Connell believes he is ready.
Early in his amateur career, O’Connell weaved and wandered. After leaving the University of North Carolina, he turned pro but struggled as a mini-tour player. He filed for amateur reinstatement after three years as a pro. He regained his amateur status, but still spent four years away from competitive golf, starting a career in the financial industry. Eventually he returned to golf, and that decision culminated in a 4-and-3 victory over Brett Boner in the 2018 U.S. Mid-Amateur final at Charlotte Country Club in his native North Carolina.
Whew, analyzing that career path could wear out the most dedicated golf historian. One day he was a teenage golf phenomenon, the next he was a 30-year-old reinstated amateur.
Anyway, as a result of that Mid-Amateur victory, he will play in this year’s Masters and U.S. Open. Then, in all likelihood, he will once again turn pro and seek his fortune in the topsy-turvy world of professional golf.
“I feel completely different now,” O’Connell said. “I’ve been playing again for the last few years. I haven’t changed anything mechanically. There is nothing different about my swing. But I feel like a different person. A better person. A better golfer. Sometimes it’s hard to define things, but there’s something going on.”
His father, Bud, senses the difference: “It seemed like he wasn’t quite ready when he got out of college. He tried being a pro, but he wasn’t ready. Now he feels that things are different.”
O’Connell went to his dad and mom (Joy) and announced he wanted to turn pro again. “I’d really like to try professional golf one more time,” is how his father remembers the proclamation. “I think I can do it.”
His parents support his amateur-turned-pro, turned-amateur, turned-pro journey. “If that’s your dream, you have to go for it,” said his dad. “It will be interesting to see where this takes him.”
In the recent Gasparilla Invitational at Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club in Tampa, Fla., O’Connell tied for fourth in the mid-amateur division. The Gasparilla is viewed as something of a proving ground for mid-amateurs, and O’Connell posted an impressive total of 207 (68-68-71).
Before he likely turns pro again, O’Connell has one bit of unfinished business: He wants to make the U.S. Walker Cup team that will travel to England to challenge Great Britain and Ireland in September. O’Connell is one of four USGA national champions who have been invited to audition for the squad. The other three are Stewart Hagestad (2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur), Cole Hammer (2018 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball), and Matt Parziale (2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur).
“Playing in the Masters should tell me a lot about myself. It’s the big stage.” – Kevin O’Connell
The 47th Walker Cup will be played at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England, on Sept. 7-8.
“The Walker Cup would be my dream come true,” O’Connell said. “I think I’m ready for this. I have a schedule of tournaments that I would like to play in this summer.”
His financial career, with a firm in Chapel Hill, N.C., called Franklin Street Partners, provided background experience in wealth management. Franklin Street clients include several athletes from the college triangle that includes North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke.
If O’Connell has to return to the world of finance, he will. First, though, professional golf beckons again.
Amateur reinstatement has changed drastically over the years. There was a time in the 1940s and 1950s when amateur golfers were advised by the USGA not to talk about turning pro. Reinstatement was a complex process that generally took at least two years, often longer.
Now the reinstatement process has been speeded up significantly. Many amateur tournaments are won by former pros who have returned to the amateur ranks.
Most of his life, O’Connell has dreamed of becoming a golf professional. Said his longtime friend, T.D. Luten, “He had that clutch gene at a very young age. For me, it was beyond amazement how much skill he had.”
A former assistant coach for the men’s golf team at Duke, Luten also worked for the First Tee of Metropolitan New York and later became executive director of the First Tee of the Triangle, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C.
“Kevin is a high achiever,” Luten said. “He’s smart. He’s always had a knack for getting the ball in the hole.”
Looking back at his short-lived pro career, O’Connell said, “I think you need those failures to achieve success later in your career. It helps if you can figure it out by yourself.”
Which brings O’Connell to his core philosophy: “The most important thing, in my opinion, is to come up with your own swing thoughts when it’s not going well. It can be a huge mistake to rely on somebody who is not hitting the shots.”
As he contemplates the road ahead, O’Connell will savor the spoils of his U.S. Mid-Amateur victory.
“We have rented two houses in Augusta for the Masters,” he explained. “One is for my family and one is for Michelle’s family. It’s like a vacation for us. It will be even more so at the U.S. Open (being played this year at Pebble Beach Golf Links). We’ll really make a trip out of that.”
Bud O’Connell tells a wonderful story about young Kevin watching golf on television. “He would sit with Joy and me and watch all the golf. During commercials, he would jump up and stand in front of the TV. He would swing and swing with that little sawed-off club.”
So Bud started taking him to the driving range. He was 3, and he could mimic all the golfers he had seen on television. When he was 13 or so, he began playing with a regular men’s group. He would come home with his pockets full of coins and $1 bills.
Along the way, O’Connell became something of a die-hard traditionalist. He thinks golf needs more narrow fairways and high rough. He thinks no golfer should be able to hit 14 drivers during a round of golf.
“I want to see people shoot low without hitting driver off the tee on every par-4 and par-5,” he said. “And let’s hide some of the pins so that a shot to the middle of green can be a very good shot. Let’s increase the role of strategy in golf.”
Kevin O’Connell is like many of us. He loves the game. He always has. He dreamed of being a golf pro, but he never quite made it. He returned to the amateur ranks and imagined he was a national champion, except this goal seemed so far away.
Then suddenly he really was a national champion. Golf surely is a wonderful game, full of unexpected developments.
“Playing in the Masters should tell me a lot about myself,” O’Connell said. “It’s the big stage.”
And for the rest of us, we will watch from afar as O’Connell carries our banner. He is our hero, a lifelong public golfer who carries the title of everyman.
Kevin O’Connell stretches Wednesday during the Par-3 Contest prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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