Kevin O'Connell (USGA photo)
should be in Europe right now. That he’s not speaks to the unpredictable nature of this game. In the past two weeks, the path he had mapped out for himself and his career in golf has been totally upended. A USGA title can do that.
For O’Connell, 2018 has been about a recommitment to his golf game. He left a job as a rep at major club manufacturer PXG in March. He was scheduled to play European Tour Qualifying School this week in a last-ditch, all-in effort at a professional golf career. Winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur on Sept. 27
didn’t just prompt a left turn, it was more like “turning around and going the same speed in the opposite direction.”
USGA titles – like the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur, and the U.S. Mid-Amateur – can open up a world of doors in terms of professional starts, invitations and exemptions that weren’t otherwise on the table. So when O’Connell, 30, won the Mid-Amateur, suddenly his head was flooded with possibilities. O’Connell, of course, is now staring at a U.S. Open exemption and a Masters invitation, along with a return trip to the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur.
And those are just the stated perks. Assume that many more tournament invitations will now find their way to his Cary, N.C., home.
“In order to take advantage of everything, I have to be an amateur next year,” he said.
When O’Connell was interviewed on the 15th green at Charlotte Country Club after defeating Brett Boner for the title, he was still committed to European Tour Q-School. He hadn’t had time to work out any other scenario.
“I affirmed that I was going to go over there because my mindset was I thought could go over there and go through their qualifying school as an amateur,” he explained the week after the tournament. “Maybe play the beginning of the season over there as an amateur and accept some of the exemptions that came along with winning. It wasn’t possible.”
The first conversations were with Michelle O’Connell, his wife of three years. He consulted his parents and eventually sought a voice of experience in swing instructor Todd Anderson, the director of instruction at the PGA Tour Performance Center at TPC Sawgrass.
“The voice that helped out the most was Anderson,” O’Connell said. “He has not only coached plenty of guys on the PGA Tour but has had some kids in college, possibly even someone who has been in a similar situation.”
Anderson affirmed what O’Connell really already knew: turning pro in the next year didn’t make much sense, so O'Connell withdrew from European Tour Q-School.
What’s most interesting about O’Connell’s story is how he got to this point. He garnered headlines during the Mid-Amateur as a North Carolina local, but dig deeper, and O’Connell is a player whose entire life has revolved around golf.
O’Connell played for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and as a freshman, led the country in greens in regulation. He was a consistent ball-striker, but lacked that consistency on the greens – at least at the level needed to win tournaments. O’Connell never won a college event, despite holding the No. 31 position in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings at the end of his freshman year (his highest rankings finish throughout his college career).
In fact, before winning the Monroe Invitational in June
, O’Connell hadn’t won a golf tournament since winning the North Carolina state high school championship as a senior in high school. That was in 2007.
The Monroe victory did little to create more playing opportunities for this summer – most fields had been filled by the time O’Connell won that title in late June – but from a confidence perspective, it was huge “to close a door and ultimately win a tournament.”
After leaving PXG, O'Connell had recommitted to getting stronger in all aspects of his sport. He got in the gym and picked up work with Anderson, who has worked with O’Connell’s swing for more than half of his life. He worked to feel balanced and athletic in his setup, and tried to build confidence in all aspects of the game. O’Connell has gained a general maturity as a player – mostly reflected in on-course decision making – and says his short game is better now than it ever was in college.
Even things outside of golf have changed for O’Connell – even the nature of phone conversations. O’Connell and fellow mid-amateur Justin Tereshko, now the assistant men’s golf coach at the University of Louisville after serving four years as the coach at Guilford Collge in Greensboro, N.C., have only ever called each other by one name. Tereshko is Coach, and O’Connell is Kev.
“He jokes everyone should know him by one name, I just call him Kev,” Tereshko said. “Every time we talk on the phone, it’s kind of childish of us, I just start going, ‘Kev.’ I just say it like 10 times. When we talked (after the Mid-Amateur), instead of saying Kev, I said Champ 10 times.”
Tereshko was scheduled to play in the U.S. Mid-Amateur but had to withdraw after starting his new gig at Louisville. At first, he told himself he wasn’t going to look at scores or watch the broadcast. Then O’Connell got hot, and he started following. Now he’ll watch his friend’s career blossom with interest, wondering, like the rest of us, where he’ll go in this game.
“He’s got himself locked up as one of the top mid-amateurs in the country for forever because he won the mid-am at such a young age,” said Tereshko, who had helped convince O’Connell to make some early-year amateur starts, including at the Monroe.
After college, O’Connell gave PGA Tour Qualifying School three tries, but never got his card. In the U.S., the Q-School road is long and arduous. O’Connell would have had to start with pre-qualifying and then play three more stages. If he went to Europe, there was no pre-qualifying.
Starting out on the European Tour isn’t unheard of for O’Connell’s generation of players. Peter Uihlein, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion, did it, and so did Brooks Koepka, now a three-time major champion. O’Connell’s father Charles was a pilot for Midway Airlines when he was a kid (later transitioning to private aviation for a company called SAF Software), so O’Connell had some travel opportunities when he was young. There was a team trip to Scotland with his North Carolina teammates in college, and a few caddie jobs for a buddy, Lee Bedford, in South America at the beginning of 2013.
Add it all up, and it’s easy to see how the plan formed. The only real question that remains is what happens now that O’Connell has rerouted.
“It’s been a really interesting thing mentally because when we started, we were obviously talking about how I was going to Europe,” O’Connell said. “All of a sudden that’s taken off the table. 2019 is just a completely different scene altogether for me. I wish I had a better answer in terms of a plan.”
Sometimes life comes together outside of the plan anyway. O’Connell is the poster child for that.