Masters men: Augusta is a game changer for six amateurs
21 Mar 2019
by Julie Williams of AmateurGolf.com

see also: The Masters Tournament, Augusta National Golf Club, Kevin O'Connell Rankings

Kevin O'Connell (USGA photo)
Kevin O'Connell (USGA photo)

There may be no better second-chance story in golf this year than Kevin O’Connell. Six years have gone by since O’Connell, 30, entered PGA Tour Q-School – for the third time. This week, as an amateur, he’ll play the Masters.

“I feel like I’m in a really unique and beneficial situation where I’ve got a year of really good tournaments to play in, and plenty of opportunities to see how my game stacks up,” said O’Connell, who gained entry as the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion. He was reinstated as an amateur in 2015.

O’Connell won the Mid-Am days before he was planning to give professional golf another shot. Since his September victory, O’Connell has, in fact, reinvested in the game, just on different terms. He had to remain an amateur to accept spots in the Masters, U.S. Open and of course the U.S. Amateur, among others.

O’Connell and his wife Michelle recently relocated from Cary, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., where O’Connell could spend the winter working on his game. He plays out of TPC Sawgrass and also uses the practice facilities there. He has picked up with Las Vegas-based instructor Greg Labelle, who teaches out of the Butch Harmon School of Golf.

When the Players Championship came to town last month, O’Connell spent a long weekend in Palatka, Fla., roughly an hour drive down Interstate 95, getting competitive reps at the Florida Azalea Amateur. He finished T-6.

Kevin O'Connell
Kevin O'Connell
Of the six amateurs in the Masters field, O’Connell faces a unique challenge. It’s easy playing a full winter schedule in college, but mid-amateur opportunities are scarce. So far this winter, O’Connell has also played the Jones Cup (T-27) and the Gasparilla Invitational (T-4). The Azalea Amateur is usually a guarantee for mid-ams, but it’s on hold this year as the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.) prepares for the U.S. Women’s Open coming up. O’Connell played an event on the Coastal Players Tour, a North Carolina mini-tour, instead.

That’s a tip from 2016 Mid-Am champion Stewart Hagestad, given during December’s practice session for U.S. Walker Cup hopefuls.

It’s a small club of mid-ams who have played the Masters, but they take care of their own. O’Connell, understandably, had “a million questions” about what’s appropriate, who to seek out, where to eat and what to wear. Hagestad plus former champs Matt Parziale (2017) and Scott Harvey (2014) have been happy to answer.

“Other than that, it’s not like we’re breaking out an (Augusta) yardage book and talking about every shot,” O’Connell laughed.

The other details have fallen into place, too. O’Connell received his first communication from Augusta in October and made his first visit to the course that month. He’s allowed five days there leading up to the Saturday of the event. He first brought his dad then his caddie (David Gies, a player in his own right who also carried O’Connell’s bag at the Mid-Am) on the first two visits.

“Walking around it as a patron, you can kind of tell that it’s the nicest place and the best design,” he said of Augusta. “But then when you actually play it, it’s without a question my favorite golf course – a million times my favorite golf course.”

Viktor Hovland, U.S. Amateur champion

Halfway through the Arnold Palmer Invitational, after a second-round 2-under 70 at Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando, Fla., that kept him inside the cut line, Viktor Hovland expressed displeasure with his game.

“It’s just, I’m not hitting the shots that I want to, not executing how I want to,” he said. “… It’s not really where I need it to be.”

Hovland, 21, has made seven starts with his Oklahoma State team this season, winning three times. It’s still up in the air whether the Norwegian will return for his senior season.

A long list of perks come with the Havemeyer Trophy – which can play a big factor in that decision – with perhaps none so shiny as the Masters start.

Hovland hadn’t been to Augusta to prep when he teed it up at Bay Hill, but saw the course early April after the Georgia Cup, an annual 18-hole match between the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur champions.

During Masters week, Hovland will put a reliable caddie back on the bag in Cowboy head coach Alan Bratton, who helped navigate Hovland to the U.S. Am win in August.

“Normally people talk about long term, but right now I’m thinking more about the short term,” Hovland said. “I’m trying to soak everything in. Even the college tournaments, I don’t want to take anything for granted.”

Devon Bling, U.S. Amateur runner-up

During a marathon week at the U.S. Amateur, Devon Bling often didn’t have a lot to say. He certainly wasn’t the most dramatic player around Pebble Beach, in fact far from it. The small-town kid from Ridgecrest, Calif., (population: 20,000) played his game, counted on his caddie (who is also his assistant coach at UCLA) to keep him calm and worked his way to the final match, locking up a Masters invite before he ever teed it up against Hovland for the trophy.

“I love feeling the pressure,” Bling said after the semifinal win that earned him a spot at Augusta. “I like being nervous out there and knowing that I've got to hit a good shot here, and I've got to make this putt. I love that feeling.”

Bling, who had just completed his freshman season at UCLA, certainly took some confidence from the week. He has had two top-20 finishes in four spring starts with the Bruins. A T-10 at the Southwestern Invitational has been the best finish of his sophomore campaign.

Confidence aside, it’s worth noting that Bling has also shown a bit of ingenuity in his Masters prep (see below).

Alvaro Ortiz, Latin America Amateur champion

Perhaps most notable in Alvaro Ortiz’s trip to the Masters is the fact that this occasion will be his first step on the grounds. The Ortiz family was adamant that until either Alvaro or his older brother Carlos, a PGA Tour player, was in the field, they weren’t going.

“If I can make it to the Masters before him, that would be huge,” Ortiz memorably said at the Latin America Amateur, drawing a hearty laugh from the media 24 hours before making it happen.

The Masters is likely to be Ortiz’s amateur swan song. The 23-year-old, who exhausted his college eligibility at the University of Arkansas in 2018, had been holding out for one last shot at qualifying for Augusta through the Latin America Amateur. It turned out to be a brilliant idea.

Takumi Kanaya, Asia-Pacific Amateur champion

Takumi Kanaya, the 20-year-old from Japan, may have the best up-and-comer story of the six. He could be the next Japanese golf success story, following World No. 24 Hideki Matsuyama, who played the Masters twice as an amateur courtesy of his Asia-Pacific Amateur win.

“This is simply like a dream. I have been dreaming of going to the Masters ever since I was a kid,” said Kanaya, who received a congratulatory call from Matsuyama moments after winning the championship in Singapore. “I never expected to play the Masters and The Open so early in my career so this is just huge.”

To prepare for Augusta, Kanaya has made four professional starts over the winter, most notably the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he missed the cut. His best finish was 17th at the Emirates Australian Open at the end of 2018.

Jovan Rebula, British Amateur champion

Since winning a close match at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland to take the most coveted amateur title across the pond, Jovan Rebula’s stock has risen right alongside his World Ranking (from No. 192 entering the Amateur to his current spot at No. 40, in case you were wondering). He was the first South African to win the Amateur since Bobby Cole in 1966.

The Auburn junior has since made two professional starts along with six starts with the team. Most notably, he finished 24th at the South African Open and drew a third-round pairing alongside uncle Ernie Els in the process.

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