Mid-Am Champion O’Connell at an Unexpected Crossroads
October 4, 2018 | Charlotte, N.C.
By David Shefter, USGA
At the age of 30, Kevin O’Connell has come to a crossroads in his life – both on and off the golf course.
Even after winning his biggest event to date – the 38th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Charlotte Country Club with a 4-and-3 triumph over local favorite Brett Boner – the Cary, N.C., resident planned to fly to France the following week to compete in the first stage of European Tour School as an amateur.
This wasn’t his first foray into professional golf. After a solid four-year career at the University of North Carolina, where he was the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year and a third-team All-American, O’Connell did what most post-college golfers do: try professional golf.
Three consecutive years, from 2011-13, O’Connell failed to earn either his PGA Tour or Web.com Tour card via the grueling exercise known as Q-School. So, O’Connell applied to be reinstated as an amateur and regained his amateur status in 2015. He tried his hand at a Chapel Hill, N.C., wealth management firm, then worked as a golf equipment representative, which got him out to the golf course and engaged with players on a regular basis.
While he always had been passionate about the game his father and grandfather introduced him to, toiling in the industry reinvigorated O’Connell’s competitive drive. In 2018, he planned a year full of top competitions, and in June, he posted a one-stroke victory in the prestigious Monroe Invitational in Pittsford, N.Y. He also qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, but failed to advance to match play. His World Amateur Golf Ranking™ climbed inside the top 400, but not in time for the U.S. Mid-Amateur (the top 400 are fully exempt). Nevertheless, he qualified for the championship in his home state.
En route to the Mid-Amateur title on Sept. 27, he needed some late magic to win 19-hole matches in both the quarterfinals and semifinals. He holed a 25-foot birdie on 18 to square his quarterfinal match against Andres Schonbaum, of Argentina, then advanced with a par. That afternoon, he trailed California firefighter Kyler Sauer by four holes with seven to play before staging a remarkable rally with three birdies and a winning par on No. 19.
In the 36-hole final against the 44-year-old Boner, a hometown favorite who had 300-plus supporters, O’Connell won five consecutive holes from No. 10 in the morning 18 to take a 3-up lead into the break. Steady play in the afternoon round kept Boner from making a comeback.
When it was over, text messages flooded in, including one from 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and fellow North Carolinian Scott Harvey.
With the victory, O’Connell earned an exemption into the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, plus exemptions into the next two U.S. Amateurs and 10 U.S. Mid-Amateurs, as well as a likely invitation to the 2019 Masters Tournament. Of course, all these perks hinge on O’Connell remaining an amateur.
And there’s the rub for the successful mid-amateur golfer. O’Connell, admitted that he would have to make some hard decisions if he somehow earned his European Tour card for the 2019 season.
“I haven't had a chance to really think about whether that’s something that I’m going to do,” said O’Connell of playing professionally again not long after hoisting the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Trophy.
If Q-School doesn’t pan out, a world of golf opportunities awaits. He will certainly be invited to all of the top spring/summer amateur competitions such as the Western Amateur, Porter Cup, Crump Cup, Coleman, George Thomas Invitational, North & South at Pinehurst, Northeast Amateur, and Jones Cup.
But there’s also a career to think about. O’Connell has a wife (Michelle) and perhaps children in the future. With his connections to the financial world, he is considering going to law school and possibly becoming a sports agent. O’Connell is a passionate NBA fan – the Los Angeles Lakers are his team – and he could envision himself working in a front office or managing the finances of players.
O’Connell showed that his golf game can stand up to the rigors of championship pressure. Running the gauntlet of the U.S. Mid-Amateur isn’t easy, especially when virtually everyone in the gallery is cheering for your championship-match opponent.
“There were probably more people out watching than there would’ve been,” said O’Connell, whose supporters included his parents, an uncle who flew overnight from Los Angeles to watch the final, and his wife. “That was more my angle on it. I thought it was really fun to play in front of that many people.”
It certainly was great preparation for what might come his way next spring and summer. As a kid, he and his dad attended the 1998 Masters and watched Mark O’Meara, one of his childhood favorites, win the title. Like so many of his generation, he’s also a big Tiger Woods fan, and he’ll now potentially be part of the same field as Woods in the Masters and U.S. Open, perhaps even landing a precious practice round with the nine-time USGA champion.
He might also be teeing it up in the 2019 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, a layout he knows quite well. In 2008, he shot a career-low 64 to qualify for his first U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. And he could get another crack at Pebble Beach. In August, he shot 75 at Pebble and 74 at stroke play co-host Spyglass Hill.
“Leaving there, my dad and I both just kind of said to each other, ‘Wouldn't be it great if you could get your game in order and qualify and go back out there,’ thinking I would go through local and sectional qualifying next year.
“So to take care of that early is phenomenal. I can't wait.”
While O’Connell realizes that one more go-round at Q-School is a daunting task, he also knows this could be his last chance to fulfill a lifelong goal to play professionally. Then again, he is in a much better place now than when he graduated from North Carolina in 2011; he has matured and so has his game.
Which brings us back to that proverbial fork in the road.
In a few months, O’Connell will get the chance to drive down Magnolia Lane and picturesque 17-Mile Drive, while also making the short trip down U.S. Highway 1 to the Sandhills of North Carolina. Does it get any better than Augusta, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst?
“You know, it's all-time stuff,” said O’Connell.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.