Final Round: Brothers Remember Their Dad at 18th Green

Caddie master Nate Spitzer (left) did all he could to help stricken Tom O'Connell, the father of Dan (center) and T.J., after a round at Chambers Bay. A memorial plaque sits beside the 18th green. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)
Caddie master Nate Spitzer (left) did all he could to help stricken Tom O'Connell, the father of Dan (center) and T.J., after a round at Chambers Bay. A memorial plaque sits beside the 18th green. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – As the leaders play No. 18 late Sunday afternoon in Round 4 of the U.S. Open, brothers T.J. and Dan O’Connell will be in the grandstand, part of the huge gallery ringing the hole. No matter the outcome, they will be smiling, convinced that their father is watching the championship’s finish from an even better seat than theirs.

Barely 10 yards to the left of the 18th green at Chambers Bay, set in the fescue grass, lies a stone that reads, “Tommy O’Connell, devoted husband, father and golfer. Final round, May 17, 2010.” The O’Connell brothers are at the U.S. Open this Father’s Day weekend to celebrate the man who raised them and passed along a love of the game that led him to this course five years ago, when son T.J. was stationed at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“I had just been stationed here that April,” said T.J., 43, the father of four and the commander of the 4th Airlift Squadron at the time. “That’s what brought me here, and my parents came to visit and see their grandkids. My dad saw that this course was going to host the U.S. Amateur that summer and the U.S. Open in 2015. He was a big TV golf watcher, so the idea of playing the course and then watching it on TV was a bonus for him.”

The senior O’Connell joined three other players as a single and after he completed his round, his clubs were brought to the clubhouse at the top of the hill along with those of his playing companions, who had to catch a flight.

“I was one of the caddie managers at the time,” said Nate Spitzer, 40. “I greeted him and I remembered seeing him after his round, sitting in the sun just as peaceful as could be. A few minutes later, someone came running into the caddie shack to tell me that someone was having a problem.”

Spitzer came out to find O’Connell on the ground. Trained in CPR, he immediately went to work with the aid of another man, performing chest compressions.

“We worked on him for what seemed like an eternity, although it was less than 10 minutes,” said Spitzer. “We tried to stay calm even though everything around us was in chaos. The paramedics came flying down and jumped in. It was pretty traumatic. They kept him going as long as they could, but he had apparently suffered a massive heart attack.”

O’Connell was rushed to Tacoma General Hospital, and with no ID on him (it sat in his golf bag at the top of the property), the family awaited his return with no knowledge of the situation.

“My dad didn’t have a cellphone – you couldn’t ask him to carry one,” said Dan, 39.

“Even if he was sitting there having a drink after his round, he would have called home,” said T.J. “When I called the clubhouse, they connected me with Pierce County ambulance and we found out that he was in the hospital as a ‘John Doe.’”

After a brief period of optimism the following day, the family was told that there was no hope, and Thomas James O’Connell Sr., age 66, died on May 20.

“He never regained consciousness from when he was stricken,” said T.J., who is named for his dad and is now stationed on Oahu as a lieutenant colonel at Camp Smith, a Marine Corps base. “It’s not like he recovered and was communicative or anything like that. So, in our best moods, we like to think that his last waking moment was looking out at the golf course from the caddie shack, having played the course of his life.”

O’Connell had no known medical issues that the family was aware of, and when the Chambers Bay staff put the family in touch with his playing companions, they were stunned.

“It’s in my nature to find out the entire story,” said Dan, 39, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C. “When we talked to his playing partners, they initially said, you must have the wrong threesome. The guy we played with was having fun, a great storyteller – he shook hands afterward and had no complaints at all. They remembered him being very proud of his boys and they asked me if I was the one in the Air Force. It was classic Dad.”

The senior O’Connell had been a firefighter for 22 years in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the family lived in Syosset, in Nassau County, until his retirement. On the one-year anniversary of his father’s final round, Dan and his mother, Maureen, returned to Chambers Bay.

“I remember Nate walking us down toward No. 18, and there was a memorial stone there for someone else,” said Dan. “I asked him if we might be able to do something like that, and Mom and I came back on Father’s Day weekend after they approved the stone that we had made up. Everything was so well handled – there’s no handbook for how to handle something like this, and everyone at Chambers Bay was just great about it. They accommodated our family at every turn.”

Since he lived in the area, T.J. was able to make frequent visits to the place where his father enjoyed his final moments.

“Matt Allen and Brent Zepp [the director of golf and head professional, respectively] were great,” said T.J. “Especially as they were ramping up to a marquee event like this, I could understand if I started getting resistance, but there was never any difficulty about it. It was just a place I could come to – I didn’t have a gravesite to visit; that was on the East Coast. It allowed me to connect with what he last saw, and what he was all about.”

On Sunday of the U.S. Open, the brothers were joined at the memorial stone by Spitzer.

“It’s been hard, it still shakes me up,” said Spitzer of his efforts in 2010. “But then I was lucky enough to meet them [the O’Connells] afterward. What a crew; what a strong family. Every time I walk by the stone when I play here, I take a peek at it.”

Later on Sunday, Spitzer was going to be joined by his son Kai, 4.

“I left here when my wife became pregnant with Kai,” said Spitzer, who now works for Cisco and is working with the U.S. Open catering company this week. “She was kind enough to let me work here a while before I got a real job. When I first saw this place, I fell in love with it. I was going to caddie part-time, but I found myself coming down more and more. I was just enamored with it from Day 1.”

As he sat overlooking Chambers Bay this weekend, T.J. recalled an unplanned final goodbye from five years earlier.

“My mother talked to my dad before he left that morning, and she said, ‘I love you, have fun and play well,’” T.J. said. “I remember my wife, Katherine, turning to my mom and telling her, it’s so cute that you two still do that after all this time.”

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.