After finishing second or third the three most recent times the Georgia Open was played in Savannah, Tim O’Neal faced a possible fourth near miss in his home town, beginning Sunday’s final round of the 2018 edition of the tournament two shots off the lead.
Barrett Waters, who had finished between fourth and sixth each of the last three years in the Georgia Open, held the 54-hole lead at Ford Plantation, with O’Neal the only player closer than four shots behind Waters.
The first two times O’Neal was among the 54-hole contenders, he was too far back heading to the final round to seriously challenge the leader. Last year, he had a realistic chance to win heading to the back nine at Ford Plantation, but struggled to the finish and wound up four shots behind winner Paul Claxton, the same final deficit for O’Neal as he experienced in 2010 at Savannah Harbor.
With a final round 64, matching a course tournament record set earlier in the week, O’Neal pulled away from Waters, winning by five shots with a 20-under total of 268,the lowest winning score in the Georgia Open since Samuel Del Val shot 20-under 268 eight years ago at Savannah Harbor.
“The Georgia Open was always a tournament I wanted to win, growing up with it here in Savannah,” said O’Neal, a Savannah native and lifelong resident.
The Georgia Open was played annually in Savannah at the Sheraton Resort (now Wilmington Island Club) until 1993, with the event played at various sites around the state before returning to Savannah in 2010. The tournament has been played the last three years at the Ford Plantation, with O’Neal finishing third, second and now first at the outstanding Pete Dye layout.
O’Neal hovered close to the lead after each of the first three rounds with scores of 66-68-70. He shared the lead after the first round with recent college golfers Emmanuel Kountakis (Augusta State) and Archer Price (Georgia Southern), and was one back of Augusta’s Dykes Harbin after 36 holes, with Harbin setting the course competitive record of 64 in the second round.
Both of the first two rounds were delayed by afternoon thunderstorms, with the first round not completed until Friday morning and the second round concluding on Saturday morning. O’Neal made it through only seven holes of his first round Thursday, playing 29 holes Friday in 8-under.
Waters trailed Harbin by three shots and O’Neal by two after a second round 66, but moved in front following a second straight 66 that put him two ahead of O’Neal and four in front of recent Kennesaw State golfer Chris Guglielmo.
O’Neal quickly pulled even with Waters with an eagle on the par-5 third and a birdie at the fourth. After his only bogey of the day at the fifth, O’Neal took the lead for good with back-to-back birdies at holes 6 and 7, two of the more perilous par-4s on the course.
A birdie at the par-5 11th stretched O’Neal’s lead to two, and he moved three ahead when Waters suffered his only bogey of the day at the par-4 13th. Both players birdied the 14th before O’Neal wrapped up his victory with his sixth and seventh birdies of the day at holes 15 and 16.
O’Neal had 25 birdies for the tournament, at least one on every hole other than the par-4 second, which was the only hole at Ford Plantation on which he was over par for the tournament. He bogeyed the hole in the third round and was 1-over on the par 4 for four days.
After three top-3 finishes in the tournament, O’Neal said he was looking to “give myself a chance to win it.”
He put himself in position after 54 holes, and after beginning the final round two shots off the lead, said “I wanted to close the gap as soon as possible. I had been playing well and knew it just a matter of making putts.”
O’Neal, who struggled some with his putter down the stretch last year, responded with an outstanding day on the greens Sunday at Ford Plantation to pull away from the field and take home $8,000 for his victory.
Waters, a resident of Dallas who played in college at West Georgia, was second at 273 after a final round 71. Tying for third at 275 was Ben Kishigian of Warner Robins and recent Georgia Southern golfer Scott Wolfes of St. Simons. Wolfes shot 67 Sunday and Kishigian 68. Zach Caldwell of Alpharetta was fifth at 279 after a final round 69, with Augustans Kountakis and Harbin tying for sixth at 278.
Kountakis, who held a share of the first round lead at 66, closed with a 69 while Harbin, who played his college golf at South Carolina, shot 74-71 the final two rounds after leading following 36 holes with scores of 69-64.
Former Kennesaw State golfer Matt Nagy of Buena Vista was eighth at 279, shooting 67-70 on the weekend. Nagy was second in the Georgia Open at the Legends at Chateau Elan in 2012 and placed third at Pinetree in both 2014 and ’15, but did not play well the first two years the event was played at Ford Plantation.
Price, who completed his college career at Georgia Southern earlier this year, was ninth at 280, with Savannah’s Mark Silvers and Alpharetta’s Zach Jaworski tying for 10th at 281. Silvers, who has played the Web.com Tour, is a former South Carolina golfer, with Jaworski playing at Vanderbilt.
Jared O’Kelly of Cumming, a recent member of the golf team at Cincinnati, was low amateur at 282, tying for 12th with five pros including Guglielmo, who fell back in the final round with a 66. O’Kelley, who shot 65 in the second round, closed with a 74. Wyatt Larkin, who tied for fifth in 2017 and shared low amateur honors, was second among the amateurs this year at 283.
O’Neal has been a significant figure on the Georgia golf scene since he contended for a victory in the Georgia Amateur at Savannah GC in 1994 following his freshman season at Jackson State. Three years later he won the Georgia Amateur at Idle Hour in Macon shortly before turning pro. He joined 2017 Georgia Open champion Paul Claxton among five players who have won both the state amateur and state open titles.
That list includes 1973 Masters champion Tommy Aaron along with Hugh Royer, Jr., and Louis Brown.
O’Neal has been a tour pro for more than 20 years, spending most of his early years on mini-tours, much of his 40s (he turned 46 during the week of the Georgia Open) on the LatinoAmerica Tour, with six seasons on the Web.com Tour, primarily between 2005 and ’08.
After his initial mini-tour stint, O’Neal made it to the Web.com Tour for the first time in 2001 and played respectably, finishing 59th on the money list with two top 10s and four other finishes of 15th or better. He made it back to the tour in 2004, and enjoyed back-to-back successful seasons, placing 44th and 36th on the money list.
O’Neal twice contended for victory in ’05, finishing three shots back in a tie for fifth in the Cliff’s Pro-Am (now the event in Greenville, S.C,, sponsored by BMW), and placing second, two behind the winner in an event in Pennsylvania. He had an even better year in ’06 with five top 10s included two more strong runs at victory in Wisconsin and Miami.
But he fell to 100 on the money list in 2006 and was only able to play a partial schedule in ’08. He played only one time on the tour over the next five years before regaining his status in 2014.
O’Neal made it back to the Web.com Tour thanks to a new tour in Central and South America initiated by the PGA Tour in 2011. O’Neal joined the tour in 2013 and enjoyed a stellar season, scoring two wins along with second and third place finishes. He ended the year third on the money list, earning him a spot on the 2014 Web.com Tour.
The 2014 season did not go any better for O’Neal than his last two years on the tour, as he again finished outside the top 100 on the money list, with a tie for 20th his best showing. He has played only one event on the tour since, making the cut in the inaugural Savannah Classic at the Landings after playing his way into the field in a Monday qualifier.
O’Neal made a handful of starts on the LatinoAmerica Tour in 2014 and ’15, and scored his third tour win in ’16, finishing 14th on the money list. But he did not have as successful a season last year and has not competed in an event in 2018 although he retains full status on the tour.
After an aggravating experience with the Web.com Tour last year during the qualifying process, O’Neal is planning on taking a shot at qualifying for the European Tour, which is following the lead of the PGA Tour and abandoning a direct qualifying route to the main tour after this year.
O’Neal competed in one European Tour event years ago, qualifying for the annual stop in Morocco after winning a satellite tour event in that country while he was playing on the now defunct eGolf Tour.
The European Tour also has three stages to its qualifying process, and there are only a handful of Americans playing that tour on a regular basis. Both Brooks Koepka and Peter Uihlein played in Europe before beginning their PGA Tour careers, but neither was anywhere close to the age of 46 when they when they started out.
O’Neal admits he is “going into the unknown,” and has not yet developed a plan for how he will deal with the travel and expenses, although he has some experience in that area thanks to his time on the LatinoAmerica Tour.
“I have to get status first,” he offered.
O’Neal does not have the best history with the qualifying process for the PGA Tour, although that was his path to the Web.com Tour in the early 2000s.
In the 2000 qualifying finals, he was on the verge of earning his PGA Tour card, but he made triple bogey on his 18th hole in the final round when a bogey would have been good enough. Four years later he was in a similar position, but came up one shot short when he missed several putts coming down the stretch, any one of which would have gotten him to the PGA Tour.
O’Neal made five PGA Tour starts between 2002 and ’07, two in Hilton Head and one each in Atlanta, Jackson, Miss. (where he played in college), and Mexico. He has not played on the tour since with the exception of the 2015 U.S. Open.
Early in his career, O’Neal was assisted financially by former Tennessee basketball coach Wade Houston, and was sponsored for several years by actor Will Smith, who met O’Neal during the filming of the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”