Unbeknownst to many, Scott O’Brien is carving out a successful college career for himself in Parkland College, Illinois. The Borrisokane native is holding his own on the college circuit. The sophomore shot a final round 68, coming from a shot in arears to win the Panther Creek Invite last month, where his college also topped the team rankings.
The Nenagh Golf Club member has since posted two further second placed finishes and a top-8 finish, while his college has topped the leaderboard twice in that time.
The competitions are based on an individual and team format. A player’s own card counts for the individual leaderboard, while the best four scores from the teams five players are counted towards the team competition.
Winning on the college circuit is a big achievement. Parkland College is a Division II junior golf programme sharing the town with the University of Illinois where USA Ryder Cup Captain Steve Stricker and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters came through. It was a win where O’Brien had to dig in and wait for something to go his way after leaving shots out on the course in his opening round.
“I wasn’t hitting it as well as I could have. I got off to a good start, a par and then made three (birdies) on the bounce, on the third I had a chip in which was a boost.
“I just got comfortable from there and went lower to go six under through 15 and give myself a bit of a cushion and luckily enough got the job done,” he said.
O’Brien put his win down to a marked improvement in his short game since making the move to Illinois.
“My short game wasn’t the greatest when I came out here, but now it’s one of the strengths of my game.”
O’Brien was a keen hurler and footballer as a child, but golf found its way into his life in quite unusual and bizarre circumstances.
“My first experience of golf was when I was three years old, I went out to the local hurling field with my father and he was hitting golf balls and he hit a stray one, it hit rocks and gave me a bang on the back of the neck while I was picking flowers in the corner,” he said.
“I didn’t really play golf until I was twelve or thirteen and that’s when I started taking it seriously,” he added.
O’Brien is well into the second year of his scholarship at Parkland College, not one of the household names when it comes to college golf, but the gamble in making the trip Stateside has been a rewarding one.
“I looked up scholarships online and saw there were agencies that help out with that stuff.
“I joined up with College Sports America and they made up a profile and sent videos out there, after a few schools got in contact with me I finally made the just decision to go to Champaign and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on O’Brien’s freshman year in Illinois. The 2019-20 season was cut short. However, he made the most of the limited tournaments available.
The Business Administration major, registered top-6 finishes in all five of his tournaments last season. He was a co-medalist at the 2019 M-WAC Championship while finishing 16th in the overall national standings and claiming a spot in the GCAA DII All-Freshman team and All-Region team.
Restrictions are beginning to ease as the 2020-21 season gathers pace, but it hasn’t gone without its problems either.
“The fall season was not as long as we would have liked. We played three tournaments when usually we would play five, and then conference got pushed back to Spring when it’s normally in the fall season,” O’Brien said.
“We’re sort of getting into the brunt of the golf season now, we had conference last Monday and we have regionals coming up. Hopefully we can win the regionals and qualify for nationals,” he added.
The pandemic has also impacted O’Brien on a personal level, having not returned home to Borrisokane since August of last year. Instead of returning home at Christmas, he ventured south to the warmer environment of Florida.
“That’s kind of been the worst part of it, my mother isn’t too happy about it, but I haven’t been home since August, I came out in August and I was supposed to go back at Christmas, then everything got bad back home, so I didn’t want to risk it.
“I don’t think I’ll be going back this summer either, so next Christmas is probably when I’ll go back.”
The prolonged periods away from his family haven’t fazed O’Brien who has an old head on young shoulders and accepts that it’s part of the course.
“It isn’t the best but it’s what I expected coming out here anyway,” he said.
Loneliness has been a feeling for the majority of people across the world during the pandemic. Living abroad, away from your family while trying to balance sport and studies presents a very complex challenge, one which O’Brien has handled very well and one he feels has helped combat any potential feelings of loneliness or isolation.
“I never really get the opportunity to get lonely, because I’m a very active person, I hate sitting around and doing nothing. If I’m not doing schoolwork I’m either playing golf or going to the gym at the apartment complex,” he said.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends over here too which is nice, so if I do have trouble I can always talk to them so that’s nice to have.”
After a successful year last year making the All American second team, and a win last month O’Brien is looking to elevate his game to another level before this season is completed.
“I’d like to recreate what I did at Panther Creek and try get another win. I’d like to try go one step further and get on the All American first team, hopefully push for nationals and try get the win up there, that would be pretty nice as a team.
“We do have a very strong team, we have two guys from England and another kid from Sweden and the rest are American so we have a pretty stacked team which is always nice,” he added.
It may not be the glitz and glamour of their neighbours in the University of Illinois, but Scott O’Brien is certainly reaping the rewards of the brave gamble he took to try his luck at a golf scholarship in the United States.