There were shades of a vintage Brooks Koepka about Peter O’Keeffe last week in Brittas Bay. The towering Douglas star looked the man to beat ahead of the Flogas Irish Amateur Open taking place at Pat Ruddy’s revered European Club and O’Keeffe bought into the hype.
A serial winner this season with a trophy cabinet bulging with a Munster Stroke Play title, the Irish Close and a Douglas Scratch Cup, not to mention team honours at the Home Internationals, O’Keeffe brought his best stuff to The European Club but as it is so often in golf, it was the six inches between the ears that set him apart on a course that had many a man beat before they stepped foot on it.
“Yes, it’s severe, but you have to come to a golf course like this with acceptance, and I’ve seen a lot of players this week that haven’t accepted at all,” O’Keeffe said after edging out sweet-swinging Swiss Nicola Gerhardsen by a stroke in the three-hole aggregate playoff after both players tied at +4 in regulation.
Koepka famously explained his winning formula for his Major success – dismissing half the field before the off before narrowing down the guys who will struggle under pressure, meaning he only ever had a select few to beat. It was a similar case for O’Keeffe given The European Club was always going to provide the ultimate test for a would-be champion.
“I refer to this course as the Hunger Games of golf,” O’Keeffe explained.
“The shotgun goes off and they’re dead. They were dropping like flies early and the field got smaller and smaller. It’s almost like a miniature Tour School in a way with the field condensing every few hours, but if you remained in the right quarter, you could press on.”
And press on he did. On the first day, benign by any standards, O’Keeffe hung in, posting two-over and praying for wind as the tournament progressed. By the end of a blustery round two, O’Keeffe ensured safe passage into the final group, just one off the lead as players of international quality crumbled. The cut would fall at 17-over par.
It seemed all set up for O’Keeffe on the final day. A lost ball and a rotten bit of luck saw playing partner, Athenry’s Allan Hill post a quadruple-bogey ‘8’ on the fifth. All that was left standing in his way was the foreign raider.
A little known teen from Switzerland. Known so little Peter called him Cedric the whole way ‘round. He’d mistaken Nicola’s golf bag for one of his compatriot’s on the practice green. When Gerhardsen’s actual name was announced as runner-up at the prize-giving, an embarrassed O’Keeffe apologised as his first order of business.
In fact, there was nothing but respect from O’Keeffe for Gerhardsen. An innocuous tee-shot resulted in a lost ball on 9 for the then two-shot leader. He made double and as the pair made the turn suddenly all-square, you would’ve put your house on O’Keeffe swallowing the young man whole.
But Gerhardsen was no ordinary player. Watching and listening to his iron-play was both spectacular and gut-wrenching. Spectacular, because you felt like you were witnessing a potential future star. Gut-wrenching because you realise just how shite you are at golf.
Gerhardsen would birdie 10 to O’Keeffe’s bogey. The two-shot swing immediately reversed. He’d birdie 11 too but O’Keeffe would match him and from there it was a ding-dong battle right to the line. 57 holes required to separate them. 57 holes that O’Keeffe describes as the best golf he’s ever played in his life.
“I keep going back to mentioning Noel Fox – he’s a massive part of my success and I wouldn’t be winning tournaments without him,” O’Keeffe said.
“I lean on him an awful lot, he’s a great support to me and a huge thanks goes to him. We had a brilliant session on Thursday – I was hitting the ball so well.
“We had a very similar session the time I won at Royal County Down in Carton House. He said to me then and he said to me last week, ‘if you hit it like that, you’ll be in the mix’, and he was dead right.”
With the win, O’Keeffe became just the seventh man in Ireland to win the Irish Close/Open double, and the first since Padraig Harrington in 1995. Was he aware of the significance? Of course he was; which makes pulling off the achievement all the more impressive.
“As soon as I won the Close, I wanted to win this, but it’s all very good saying it, it’s another thing to go and do it,” he said.
The big 4-0 awaits next month but thanks to his Golf Strong business, O’Keeffe is in the shape of his life, and his golf is testament to that. Make no mistake, there’ll be no resting on laurels here. The man celebrated with one beer for God sake, and was back to work on Monday!
Instead, O’Keeffe wants his name on more trophies, while there’s also a niggling sense of under-appreciation when it comes to the Walker Cup – a cap the Cork man believes he deserves, and one that age should prove no barrier to attaining.
“I’d love to play on the Walker Cup team – I think I deserve it at this stage,” he said.
“I think I’ve deserved to be in that mix in the past and I haven’t for some reason but I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be in that conversation now.”
“It’s about winning titles for me. Playing Walker Cup would be a great honour but it’s about putting my name on as many trophies as I can now. I always say teams come on the back of performances and if I can keep winning, then that should take care of itself.”