But after being reinstated in the amateur fold after completing the obligatory two-year hiatus last year and hooking up with former Challenge Tour peer and two-time Irish Amateur Open champion Noel Fox as his main coach, he clinched the first big win of his career when he cruised to a stunning three-shot win in the Flogas Irish Amateur Open at Royal Co Down.
The 35-year old, 6 ft 5 gentle giant never fell out of love with the game despite losing a fraught, five-year battle to keep his emotions in check and make the grade in the professional ranks.
But he reaped the rewards of a new player-coach relationship, admitting he “didn’t miss a shot” as he closed with a two-over-par 73 to win by three strokes on two-over-par 286 from Scotland’s Christopher MacLean (75) and England’s Tom Sloman (72) at the spectacular Newcastle links.
O’Keeffe’s previous best performance in the amateur ranks was a run to the semi-finals in the North of Ireland Amateur Open a decade ago.
An Irish cap proved elusive but it is now very much a possibility as he proved to be utterly unflappable, extending his one-stroke overnight lead to five shots after 11 holes, then recovering from what could have been a hugely unsettling, four-putt double bogey six at the 15th to cruise to victory.
“I am absolutely delighted,” said O’Keeffe, who made a fine par despite driving into sand a the 16th, then parred the 17th to take a four-shot lead over Sloman to the par-five 18th and had enough with a bogey six to win by three.
“I had a feeling I was going to win something big. So I must credit Noel Fox, the guy is a super player and coach. I played with him on the Challenge Tour and I just decided I wanted to surround myself with the best people I possibly could.
“I have them in Noel, my sports psychologist Canice Kennedy from Cork and the Munster coach Fred Twomey. They have given out the best information for me and it seems to be working so far.”
Having opened with a two-putt birdie four at the first on a sunny day marked by a southwest wind that gusted to 20mph, O’Keeffe dropped a shot at the tough, par-three fourth but then put on a ball-striking clinic for the rest of the round.
He parred his way to the turn in level par 35, then hit a 52 degree wedge to 12 feet at the 11th and made the putt to go five ahead on one-under par.
He could have extended his lead when he left himself no more than a wedge to the par-five 12th but three-putted from 40 feet.
With MacLean falling away early with a triple bogey six at the fourth, Sloman emerged as his nearest rival, eventually carding a one over 72 to set the target at five-over par. But O’Keeffe was never unduly perturbed.
The key came at the 13th, where he left a 25 footer some eight feet short but dribbled in the par putt to remain four in front at that stage.
“That was the key,” he said. “Under pressure, whether you show it or not, you do get flustered at times, and a more experienced person can be aware of that and say, ‘Let’s just settle it again’, which I did on 13. I slowed down and knocked in that putt from eight feet.” He added: “I don’t get flustered on a golf course any more.”
It was O’Keeffe’s professional experience that proved the difference in the end and it showed at the 15th, where he four putted from 60 feet for a six but didn’t panic.
He made a fine par four after driving into sand at the 331-yard 16th and having been initially informed he was just one ahead, news filtered through that the gap was three as Sloman had made bogey, not birdie, at the 17th.
The Englishman bogeyed the 18th to boot and O’Keeffe could afford to take six after missing the green with his third and still win by three.
Now he’s contemplating adding some overseas events to his schedule and is targeting another win or two that would make him un-ignorable in the minds of the selectors.
“There was a time in my life where everything revolved around trying to make the Home Internationals team and it didn’t happen in a previous life so to speak,” he said.
“I’d absolutely love it obviously. They should have their eyes on younger players. But I’m more than good enough to play at that level and I’d be delighted if it came my way.
“I’m just putting my head down and trying to keep working on my swing as best I can and hopefully pick up another few championships this year.” While he plans to play the Close, the East, South and North, O’Keeffe may now look at entering the likes of the St Andrews Links Trophy, though it will be difficult as he works as a TPI certified coach.
“I will have a look at it tomorrow,” said O’Keeffe who is in partnership with Luke Dennehy and Steve Barry, running three gyms under the Dennehy’s Health and Fitness banner in Cork city.
“They need to pick the best team and I believe I am more than good enough to play on that [Irish] team. It would be a great honour for me and if I can put my name out there enough, we will see.”