Savannah’s Tim O’Neal will make a start in next week’s PGA Tour tournament in Los Angeles as the recipient of the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption.
The tournament, which is sponsored by luxury automaker Genesis, has been awarding exemptions to golfers from minority backgrounds in honor of Sifford since 2009, and O’Neal had been hoping for a call since that first year,
The 46-year-old O’Neal has been a constant presence on the Georgia golf scene since the mid 1990s, and until the past few years was the second most prominent African-American golfer in the professional ranks since the pro debut of Tiger Woods in 1996.
O’Neal turned pro in 1997 after winning the Georgia Amateur, and spent five seasons on what is now the Web.com Tour from 2001 to ’08. He returned to the Web.com in 2014 after winning two tournaments on the LatinoAmerica Tour in 2013 and finishing third on the money list. He won again on the LatinoAmerica Tour in 2016, but did not play the tour last year and no longer has status despite his three career victories.
During his pro career of more than two decades, O’Neal has competed and won on tours all over the U.S and around the globe, with his most recent success coming on the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour, which exists to bring greater diversity to the game of golf. O’Neal won an APGA event last year in Chicago, and earned Player of the Year honors for a second time.
O’Neal also won the 2018 Georgia Open in his hometown of Savannah, and his success last year helped him attract some notice and finally receive the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption.
“I am happy and very excited to get the opportunity to play in the tournament,” O’Neal said earlier this week. “This is a tournament I’ve wanted to play in and Riviera is an unbelievable golf course.”
O’Neal told a tournament official that he “had the opportunity to play a round of golf in 1991 with Mr. Sifford, and he has had a huge influence on me. Mr. Sifford has been an example on how to carry yourself on and off the golf course.”
The first time O’Neal made his mark in golf at the statewide level came in 1994 while he was a member of the golf team at Jackson State. O’Neal shared the lead of the Atlanta Open going to the final round and was the 54-hole leader of the Georgia Amateur, played that year at Savannah GC. He struggled in the final round both times, but came back three years later to win the Georgia Amateur at Idle Hour at Macon, shortly after graduating from Jackson State following a very successful college career.
O’Neal turned pro later that Summer, and played his first few years at the mini-tour level before spending an excruciating 15 minutes in the national golf spotlight at the 2000 Q-school finals. Needing a bogey on the 18th hole of the final round to earn a spot on the 2001 PGA Tour, O’Neal played the hole aggressively thinking he needed to make birdie.
He wound up making triple bogey after hitting his tee shot into the water, and spent 2001 on what was then known as the Buy.com (now Web.com) Tour, where he finished a respectable 56th on the money list, but did not play full time on the tour again until 2005.
O’Neal made a second strong bid at qualifying for the PGA Tour in 2004, but came up one shot short at Q-school, this time without a final hole disaster. He spent the next four years in golf’s version of Class AAA baseball, and played well on the Nationwide Tour, finishing 36th and 44th in earnings in 2005 and ’06 with a career best runner-up finish in Pennsylvania in ’05. He fell to 100th on the money list in ’07, and after an unproductive showing in ’08, made only one start the next five years before regaining his status in 2014.
After his outstanding season on the LatinoAmerica Tour in 2013, O’Neal was unable to replicate those results on the Web.com the next year. He finished outside the top 100 in earnings and did not play another event on that tour until last year, when he earned a spot in the inaugural Savannah Classic at the Landings in a Monday qualifier.
O’Neal started fast with a 66 and closed out the tournament with a 68, but a third round 77 cost him a chance at a profitable finish. He will take another shot at Monday qualifying for his hometown tournament next month, with his tentative 2019 schedule including more Monday qualifiers, a fact of life for pro golfers like O’Neal with no status on any of the PGA-affiliated tours.
“I’m just going to float around and play wherever, trying to stay sharp,” O’Neal said of his plans for 2019. He has several mini-tour options, but there are no remaining Southeast regional tours to match the Hooters and Tar Heel/eGolf Tours that provided players like O’Neal with a place to develop their games and make decent money if they played well.
O’Neal cited a few mini-tours as possible options, along with some state opens out West (Colorado and New Mexico) that will make up a chunk of his 2019 schedule, along with a handful of events on the limited Advocates PGA Tour.
In addition to his win last year in Chicago, O’Neal had runner-up finishes on the Advocates tour in Miami and Dallas and top-5 showings in Baltimore and Atlanta, the latter at Wolf Creek.
After coming close several times in recent years, O’Neal captured the Georgia Open last Summer at Ford Plantation, pulling away from the field with a final round 64 to win by five shots with a 20-under 268 total. The victory was not enough to get him an invite from either of the two tour events in southeast Georgia, and prior to his exemption into the tournament in Los Angeles next week, it has been more than a decade since he has played in a PGA Tour event other than the U.S. Open, which he qualified for in 2015 and almost made the cut at Chambers Bay.
Among his PGA Tour starts were Hilton Head in 2002 and ’05, Atlanta in ’05 and Jackson, Miss., in ’06, the city where he attended college.
O’Neal will likely get more media attention at next week’s tournament than he has since his unfortunate Q-school experience almost two decades ago, but will still have the challenge of preparing himself to play on a course he has never seen in person.
“I have no experience on the course,” he said. “I only know what from I’ve seen. When you play different tour events, it’s like that. Plus there will be so much stuff going on like media.”
With his 50th birthday in the not too distant future, O’Neal has begun to think about the Champions Tour, but his more immediate goal is a return to the Web.com Tour. He expects to play in some Monday qualifiers beginning in March, with the hope that a strong showing or two could get him back on the tour on a regular basis.
“I would definitely like to play that tour again,” O’Neal said. “I’d like to get the opportunity to play a full season and do that before I turn 50.”
O’Neal’s 50th birthday is still 3 ½ years away, but he already had some inspiration to last him until then. Augusta’s Scott Parel, a career journeyman who spent most of his career toiling in obscurity on the Web.com Tour, much of it along side O’Neal, has emerged as one of top Champions Tour players the past year or two.
“What Scott has done out there is inspiring,” O’Neal observed. “It’s helped keep my hopes up, because if he can do it, I can do it. I definitely think about that.”
At the same time, O’Neal recognizes “I still have a little bit of time left before I turn 50.”
Last year, O’Neal passed on Web.com Q-school to take a shot at qualifying for the European Tour. Having to adjust to colder weather and a different time zone did not make O’Neal’s task any easier, and even though he admitted he “did not play that well,” O’Neal missed advancing by only two shots, and has not ruled out giving it another shot.
O’Neal has some experience playing overseas, both early in his career and more recently in South America. He played the Asian Tour and won a tournament in Morocco during a brief trip to compete on a European developmental tour, and won tournaments in Colombia and Chile in 2013 and the Dominican Republic in 2016 during his successful stint on the LatinoAmerica Tour.
“I enjoy traveling, but then again, I don’t,” O’Neal said. “The long flights are not too bad, but going through customs gets old. But at the end of the day, I’m fortunate to be able to play golf for a living.”
O’Neal is a lifelong Savannah resident and he and his wife Melody have two children ages 17 and 12. He plays out of Savannah Quarters.