West Caldwell, N.J. – Pat O’Donnell walked off a soggy Mountain Ridge Country Club early Wednesday afternoon with his head held high and a smile on his face.
Never mind that he had just been eliminated from the 2012 USGA Senior Amateur, having dropped a 3-and-1 quarterfinal decision to Douglas Hanzel.
Why wouldn’t a guy from Happy Valley be … well, happy?
This Happy Valley is in Oregon, not the well-recognized Pennsylvania locale that Penn State University calls home.
O’Donnell, 58, who entered match play as the No. 63 seed after needing to go three playoff holes on Monday morning just to get into the bracket, has lived in the suburb of Portland since 2001. Happy Valley actually was part of Portland before being incorporated in 1965.
O’Donnell, a maintenance analyst for Boeing who has worked for the company since 1978, started getting serious about golf around the time he moved to Happy Valley.
As a youth, O’Donnell has visions of becoming a golf professional. He grew up competing against Peter and David Jacobsen – David competed in the Senior Amateur this week and Peter won the 2004 U.S. Senior Open – and qualified for the 1972 U.S. Amateur (he missed the cut for the final 36 holes of stroke play). He played two years at Mount Hood Community College before deciding that he wanted to be in the golf business full-time.
“I wasn’t much of a student,” said O’Donnell.
He worked as an assistant pro for 3½ years, mostly at Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland, which has hosted the LPGA Tour’s Safeway Classic. But O’Donnell quickly realized he wasn’t going to make much money playing local events and helping out in the pro shop.
“I said there has to be a better way to make a living,” said O’Donnell.
He went to work for Boeing in 1978 and eventually got reinstated as an amateur. For a good 10 years, he rarely played golf, outside of late-afternoon league play with co-workers.
“I decided I wasn’t ready [for elite competitive golf],” said O’Donnell. “I wasn’t going to go beat myself up at some of those tougher courses.”
When he turned 50, the competitive golf bug bit him. He saw the scores at senior events and felt he had the game to compete. A friend informed O’Donnell that a former colleague at Columbia Edgewater, Keith Sanden, had recently moved back to the area and was teaching at a driving range across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash.
O’Donnell reunited with Sanden and the two went to work on some swing and equipment changes. O’Donnell purchased longer clubs that were 2 degrees more upright, and he altered his setup to create more of a compact swing.
“I went from being a real low setup guy to trying to rely more on timing,” said O’Donnell.
Positive results ensued. O’Donnell qualified for the 2009 USGA Senior Amateur in his first year of eligibility (55 and over) and advanced to the third round before falling to William Thomas Doughtie, 1 down. Last year, he again qualified and reached the round of 32 before Hunter Nelson eliminated him, 7 and 6.
In 2012, O’Donnell qualified for his first U.S. Senior Open, at Indianwood in Lake Orion, Mich. O’Donnell was able to procure a practice round with Portland legend Peter Jacobsen through David Jacobsen.
“I got a nice picture of the two of us walking down a fairway,” said O’Donnell.
Peter Jacobsen, who just worked the Ryder Cup Matches for NBC, sent O’Donnell a text message this week on his successful Senior Amateur. David Jacobsen also advanced to match play, but lost in the round of 32.
“He said, ‘Way to go,’” said O’Donnell. “That was pretty cool.”
So was O’Donnell’s performance at Mountain Ridge. Although he admittedly struggled in stroke play – “I couldn’t make any putts” – O’Donnell managed to play well enough to get into the 11-for-9 playoff for the final spots. Once he qualified, he felt the pressure was off.
He proceeded to eliminate second seed Stan Kinsey in the first round, 1 up, after Kinsey had shot a championship-low 66 in Saturday’s first round of qualifying. Then he survived a 22-hole second-round match against Owen Joyner before going 18 holes to beat James Pearson, 1 up, in the third round.
“In the matches [on Tuesday], I finally made a bunch of putts,” said O’Donnell.
He was playing the equivalent of even-par golf against Hanzel in Wednesday’s weather-delayed quarterfinals. Following a nearly two-hour suspension, O’Donnell returned to the eighth hole against Hanzel, who came into the Senior Amateur as one of the country’s hottest competitors. He was low amateur at the Senior Open – where O’Donnell missed the cut – and made match play at both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur. Hanzel also won the Georgia Senior Amateur by a whopping 16 strokes.
O’Donnell fell behind two holes on the inward nine before making a birdie at No. 15 to close the gap to 1 down. But Hanzel made a long birdie at 16 and closed out the match at the 17th after O’Donnell’s approach to the par-5 hole buried in a greenside bunker.
“I gave him a good run,” said O’Donnell, who walked every round but Tuesday’s third round, when his caddie suggested that he get a golf cart, which is permitted at the Senior Amateur. “I had him thinking.
“I had to go at the [flagstick on 17] and it just came down [hard] out of the rough. You could see [the ball], but it was below the surface [of the sand].
“I always knew I could compete, but you get a little nervous out there at times when you get to a different level. I played well today. I had a good match.”
It was O’Donnell’s best finish in five USGA championships, and his quarterfinal showing earns him a spot in next year’s Senior Amateur at Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers, N.C.
That was enough to make O’Donnell a happy man.
David Shefter is a senior writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.