Former UNC Golfer Kevin O’Connell takes long path to Masters

The 30-year-old barely missed the cut at Augusta and will play in the U.S. Open thanks to his win at the USGA Mid-Amateur in Charlotte

Former UNC golfer Kevin O'Connell hits a drive on the second hole during the first round at the Masters on April 11. (David J. Phillip / AP Photo)

You’re standing over a 4-foot putt on the 18th green and just to make things interesting, you tell yourself, “This one is to win the Masters.”

Every aspiring golfer, regardless of skill level, has done it a least once.

Kevin O’Connell is no exception.

The only difference is that when he did it two weeks ago, he was actually standing on the 18th green at Augusta National, playing in the Masters. While his 4-footer for par was only to make the cut and play on the weekend rather than the win, it sure felt like the green jacket was on the line to the 30-year-old North Carolina graduate.

“That’s a big stage. I’m not going to lie. That was probably the biggest stage I’ve ever been on, the 18th green with a chance to make the cut,” said O’Connell, who played out of Cary’s Prestonwood Country Club before a recent move to Florida.

“There are scoreboards literally everywhere you look at Augusta, so I was well aware of what was going on. I certainly had the feeling that if I parred 18, I was going to be in.”

Although the putt slid by the hole on the low side, leaving him at 3-over for the tournament and one shot shy of the cut line, O’Connell’s first Masters experience was anything but a disappointment.

For one thing, he got to play several rounds on one of the most famous courses in the world alongside some of the best golfers in the world. In addition to including first- and second-round playing partners Shane Lowry and Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, he also played practice rounds with the likes of top-10 players Matt Kuchar and Bryson DeChambeau.

He also got to spend the week at the famed Crow’s Nest atop Augusta National’s historic clubhouse and collected plenty of souvenirs — including a set of crystal glasses for making an eagle on the par-5 15th hole on Friday.

“There’s no other feeling like it that I’ve had in golf so far,” he said.

O’Connell admitted that there were several times both before and during the tournament that he had to pinch himself to realize he was actually playing in the Masters. The fact that his trip to Augusta entailed much more of a journey than the drive down stately Magnolia Lane made the moment all the more meaningful.

The 2008 ACC Freshman of the Year had already taken one shot at playing golf professionally before regaining his amateur status and getting a “real” job, first as a financial analyst for current and former UNC athletes, then as a representative of a golf equipment company.

By last fall, the itch to play full-time had returned. He decided that if he was ever going to try to turn pro again, it was now or never.

He was all set to fly to France to attempt to qualify for the European Tour in September, but that plan changed abruptly when a week before he was scheduled to leave, he won the USGA Mid-Amateur championship at Charlotte Country Club.

The Mid-Am is open to post-college amateur golfers with a handicap of 3.4 or lower. Because the winner is given an automatic exemption to the Masters and U.S. Open, O’Connell decided to delay his return to pro status for at least the next few months.

“It kind of turned my whole plan on its head,” he said. “It was definitely a welcome adjustment.

“I’m going to play in the U.S. Open and if I’m still playing well, maybe I can get the Mid-Am spot on the Walker Cup team. At that point, I’ll make a decision on whether I want to give qualifying a try again.”

No matter what happens, he’ll always have Augusta.

“It’s funny because having been to the tournament and having watched it on TV for as long as I can remember, you see all the good shots and you think the golf course is super gettable,” O’Connell said. “But when you’re out there with a club in your hand, you realize that it is a difficult place to play. It’s an interesting feeling you get when you’re hitting those shots, especially around Amen Corner, for the first time.”

Augusta National got the best of this particular first-timer in Round 1 on Thursday, in which O’Connell shot a 5-over 77. He seemed much more comfortable in Round 2 on Friday, bouncing back from bogeys on the first two holes with five birdies in a nine-hole stretch ending at Amen Corner.

He then drained a 15-foot putt for the eagle on 15 that put him in position to make the cut until his next-to-last stroke three holes later.

“I would say maybe a little pressure got in the way, but it was more like a combination of things — the situation, the read and a little bit the stroke,” O’Connell said, adding that he hoped to one day be in position to have another meaningful putt at the Masters.

“There’s no question it was the experience of my lifetime to this point,” he said. “This was my first and, obviously, I hope it was not my last.”