AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was hard to find anyone having a better time at Augusta National Golf Club this week than a 30-year-old golfer with a history degree from North Carolina. Kevin O’Connell knows all about the Masters’ “tradition unlike any other,” including that tournament co-founder Bobby Jones was a principled amateur legend who never turned pro.
O’Connell’s first Masters appearance lasted only 36 holes, but all were memorable.
“A dream come true,” O’Connell said Friday. “Not just for a mid-amateur but any amateur that gets to play here at Augusta National where the greatest amateur and greatest golfer of all-time built it. It’s just the stuff of dreams.”
A 77-71 wasn’t quite enough to make the weekend cut.
Film-worthy, an All-American comeback tale wrapped in Augusta green and tied with a bright yellow ribbon.
• O’Connell after leaving North Carolina in 2011 endured three frustrating years trying to qualify for the PGA Tour or Web.com Tour. He quit trying in 2015.
• He got real jobs, first with Franklin Street Partners, a wealth management firm in Chapel Hill. Then as a golf equipment rep with Parsons Xtreme Golf. But he kept playing golf and regained his amateur status.
“I knew I wanted to give golf another shot,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t want to give up on my dream.”
• O’Connell last year began to have success on the Mid-Amateur circuit and was aiming for European Tour Q-school when a strange thing happened: He won the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Charlotte Country Club.
A dilemma came with the trophy.
O’Connell could accept automatic invitations to the 2019 Masters and U.S. Open or give up those spots by turning pro.
Q-school can wait.
The cautionary tale of Colt Knost had influence. Knost after winning U.S. Amateur and U.S. Public Links titles in 2007 turned down a Masters invite to turn pro. He hasn’t qualified for Augusta again.
“It was a no-brainer coming here,” O’Connell said, “and I know if someone else was in the same shoes, I’m pretty sure they would have felt the same way.”
Par 3 fun, eagle at 15
O’Connell and his wife Michelle moved from Cary, N.C., to Jacksonville so he could tune his game at the TPC Sawgrass course while squeezing in Augusta National practice rounds.
There are all kinds of colorful characters in this Masters.
The portly Kiradech Aphibarnrat loves racing expensive sports cars around the streets of Bangkok and vaping between holes.
Every shot is a physics experiment for brainy Bryson DeChambeau.
Corey Conners of Canada, aided by caddie Kyle Peters of James Island, was the last participant to qualify.
How about that 48-year-old Phil Mickelson?
But the O’Connells were basking in the Augusta sun even when it was drizzling.
Kevin got to chit-chat with Tiger Woods during a practice round.
Michelle served as caddie in the Par 3 Tournament on Wednesday.
“As soon as I got in the Masters, that was an automatic decision to have her on the bag,” O’Connell said. “We’ll have those pictures forever. It’s fantastic.”
The on-course highlight came Friday at No. 15: O’Connell, wearing a shirt the bright pink color of Augusta azaleas, dropped a 19-foot putt for an eagle on the par 5, 530-yard “Firethorn” hole made famous by Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle in 1935.
“It was really cool,” O’Connell said. “I was on a nice run, and to see that putt go down, it was awesome. It was also important in giving me a chance.”
A new cap and Bobby Jones
Augusta National so cherishes its amateur roots. Jones from 1920 to 1930 won 13 major championships before retiring at 28.
Like O’Connell, Jones excelled academically at what is now an ACC school (he was a mechanical engineering major at Georgia Tech before getting an English degree at Harvard and a law degree at Emory).
Somewhere, the grand old man is getting a kick out of this Masters rookie having such a blast.
And O’Connell doesn’t just talk about his reverence for the Masters, he wears it. While most of the other players were sporting sponsor logos on the course, O’Connell’s cap was white with the classic Augusta National Golf Club logo.
The same kind available in the gift shop.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I picked up some gear along the way.”
It won’t be surprising if O’Connell is still wearing the same cap as he tries to qualify for the European Tour. But not until he is done playing in the U.S. Open.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.