The 35-year old from Douglas spent five years toiling on the Challenge Tour before regaining his amateur status last year.
And while he now has the kind of long game needed to compete on tour a few years ago, he points to finance and professional preparation as the biggest stumbling blocks facing Ireland’s next generation of stars.
“I didn’t have the structure needed for professional golf,” O’Keeffe said as he reflected on his momentous three-stroke win at Royal County Down on Sunday.
“I didn’t have the financial freedom. I was always working. I remember finishing the season on Challenge Tour and people would ask where I was going practising for the winter and I’d say, I’m going back to work. They were going to Dubai and I was going to work as a manager in the White Lady Hotel in Kinsale for two friends of mine, Anthony Collins and Roman Minihane. They used to support me during the season and gave me work there in the winters... and whenever I missed a cut.”
O’Keeffe was not without support but while he was awarded €32,000 by the Team Ireland Golf trust between 2008 and 2012 and couldn’t speak highly enough of the Irish Sports Council (now Sport Ireland), he insists it’s not nearly enough.
“I had to write away to people looking for sponsorship, and that’s not what I am good at at all,” he said. “I had a decent final season on the Challenge Tour but I couldn’t face looking for funding again and waiting to see if I could get grants. There was no structure to it at all. Plus I was 31 at the time, and there was a business opportunity on the horizon, so I went for that instead. I got loads of support from Team Ireland, and they were fantastic. I couldn’t say enough about them. But we need more support from other avenues — support I couldn’t get for whatever reason.”
Now a certified Titleist Performance Institute golf coach, O’Keeffe is finally getting to use the degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Science that he earned from the University of Southeastern Louisiana, where he was a Division One golfer from 2004 to 2007.
He once tied with Danny Willett and beat future PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley and South African PGA Tour player Dawie van der Walt in a playoff for the San Antonio Roadrunners Classic at Comanche Trails in 2007. His lone college win led to his best amateur season, culminating in an impressive haul of five and a half points out of six for Munster in the Interprovincial Matches at County Louth.
But his performance didn’t impress the Irish selectors, he was left out of the Irish team for that season’s Home Internationals. Even though he reached the final stage of Q-School that year and won a Challenge Tour card, turning professional immediately, he quickly realised he had been utterly naive.
“If I were to sponsor a young fella now, I would put 100 grand into an account and say, let’s see how we get on for a year or two,” he said.
“I’d say, make a plan, practise, form a team, form a routine, plan a schedule and have no constraints with a credit card you can use for your golf. You do your accounts and treat it like a business and see if you are in the black or not. When I turned pro I was miles away from the required standard for a good two years and tried to do the best I could with what I had.”
He should have known he wasn’t ready, having been forewarned by Jim Carvill, who played professional golf for several years before returning to the amateur fold, winning the East and the South in 2005.
“I played in an East with Jim one year and he asked me my plan. And I told him I was going to turn pro. Jim just said, ‘Do NOT turn pro unless you have a bucket of money.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah right’. I was going to go on the Challenge Tour and pocket €40,000 the first year. So I turned pro and got on the Challenge Tour and I made €7,900 in my first season and I thought, this is the real world now.”
Instead of concentrating on his game, O’Keeffe became obsessed with the financial side of surviving on tour.
“I always had my bank balance in my head,” he said. “I’d be thinking, how much is this or that going to cost? And I didn’t like slumming it. You might make a cut or two, and that would keep you going for another while, but you were constantly stressing about when money was going to hit your account and how much tax you are going to pay. Young fellas don’t think about those things at all. So when I hear a guy say that he is turning pro, I say, ‘Have you thought about this properly?’”
For O’Keeffe, the yardstick that measures those capable of making a success of pro golf remains the same — domination of the domestic and international circuit. Even though he could compete with Danny Willett or Keegan Bradley on his good days, it took him four years to get his game to a decent level.
“I went over to Louisiana as a Youths International and thought I was the bee’s knees and quickly found out I was rubbish compared to the standard out there,” he said.
His plan now is to try and build on his win at Royal County Down and win that elusive Irish cap. But if he had his time again, he’d hand the likes of Kilkenny’s Mark Power €50,000 a year to compete on tour.
“You have to have the attitude and an old head on young shoulders, like Paul Dunne,” he said. “And Mark Power, who I played with this week. What a player he is. What a player for just 16 years of age. No fear.”