Positivity is contagious. If you don’t believe it, spend a few minutes around LPGA Professionals member and motivational speaker Debbie O’Connell, a New Jersey native and former basketball star who fills every room she enters with enough energy to keep the lights on for days.
“With the pandemic, I wanted to be a positive light and keep people pumped and up in a down time,” O’Connell said in a tone that is as enthusiastic and genuine as a touchdown cheer. “So, I moved everything (in my Live Positive messages) virtual. And (on Facebook Live) every week I have Motivational Monday and Fun Friday to help keep people upbeat.”
She is not above pulling out some props in her presentation. There’s the Wonder Woman outfit, compete with cape, and a Tina Turner wig that goes on with the karaoke machine. O’Connell will break out in song at a moment’s notice.
“I do a Tina Turner impersonation and use her personal story of overcoming an abusive relationship and walking away with only her name as an example for others on being strong and resilient,” O’Connell said. “I also dress up and sing and do fun things. I think when all of this is over and people ask me what got me through this pandemic, I’m going to say Fun Friday.”
A cynic would call it a schtick. But when you see and hear O’Connell’s zest for life, in and out of the narrow field of golf, you realize that this person is just what the world needs.
You see it in the eyes of the girls, ages 13-18, she teaches at the LPGA Leadership Academy, and in the giddy excitement from the younger girls she mentors in the Greater Newark Chapter of LPGA*USGA Girl’s Golf.
Then you hear her story and you understand that her message isn’t from a book or a graphic or from any of the John Maxwell teaching, coaching and speaking certifications she holds. O’Connell lives what she preaches. Always has.
“I played other sports growing up in Ridgewood, New Jersey - softball, basketball and field hockey – and we were a very athletic family,” she said. “My dad played some golf, not very seriously, and my mom might have played a couple of times. I played a time or two as a teenager but never took lessons and never thought much about it.”
O’Connell was a star at basketball. She played at Western Kentucky University where her team made it to the Women’s NCAA Final Four in her freshman year, losing to eventual National Champion, the University of Texas, in the semi-finals. As she was earning her degree in psychology with minors in broadcasting and business, Debbie always thought she would be a coach – either basketball or life, maybe both.
“I always wanted to be a motivational speaker,” she said. “From the first time I heard a motivational speaker, I thought, that’s my life right there. But then I thought, you know I need to go do something and become successful before I can tell others how to be successful.”
Golf wasn’t in the picture until her junior year of college.
“I got to know the women’s golf coach. I had played one round of golf with my college basketball coach Paul Sanderford and the women’s golf coach, an LPGA Professional, said, wow, you can hit a golf ball. When she invited me out, I thought we were going to the driving range, but she said we were going to play. I said, ‘Cathy, can you show me how to hold the club?’ But I crushed the first shot.
“Three weeks later, she asked me to join the women’s team. It was the five best scores out of six players but at the time they only had five players on the team. So, not knowing much at all about golf, I said, sure, and showed up. The team wasn’t happy. They thought I would embarrass them, but I did my best to look like a golfer.”
After graduation, O’Connell had a choice. She could move to Spain and play professional basketball (the WNBA wasn’t created until 1996), or she could coach. It wasn’t until she returned home to New Jersey that a third option arose.
“There was a guy in my hometown who said he would give me golf lessons if I helped him around the golf shop,” O’Connell said. “So, I started out working in the shop, picking the driving range and being the starter. Then I became an assistant pro and teacher. I skipped over playing amateur golf, which wasn’t the best move. I went straight into the professional ranks, into the LPGA Professionals division, which we called Teaching and Club Pro division at the time. I loved every second of it.
“I played in one LPGA Tour event, even though I’d only been playing golf a couple of years. I decided to Monday qualify for the Shoprite Classic in New Jersey. I figured I’d have this one-day tournament with a lot of good players, and it would be great experience. But then I got a call from the tournament director asking about playing and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll see you Monday when I come to qualify.’ He said, ‘No, you’re in the tournament.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m in the tournament?’ He said, ‘We didn’t have enough people sign up (for Monday qualifying) so everybody got in.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I wasn’t expecting to actually play.’ But I ended up shooting 82-79 and was thrilled to break 80 the second day.”
She worked as a head professional for 15 years. Then she traveled the country doing corporate clinics and encouraging women to get into the game. Throughout that time, golf was a tool to inspire.
It still is today.
“When I speak to women in the corporate world, I always ask them to list their top three priorities,” she said. “Invariably, they are the same. Always, number one is family, priority number two is career and number three is health and fitness. So, I bring up golf and ask them, ‘Why not integrate all your priorities with this one activity?’ You can play with your family, play in the corporate world and remain healthy, outside and active in the process. It’s a win all around.
“It gets women thinking about integration. And that carries over to so many other things in life.”