Forty-Six year-old Tim O’Neal is in the field this week at the Genesis Open at Los Angeles’ Riviera Country Club as the recipient of the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption, which has given an exemption to a golfer from a minority background since 2009. In a tournament filled with supergroups, in a city filled with movie stars, at a country club reserved for only the elite, it is only fitting for Tim O’Neal to bring the stark contrast of a life outside of “Living Under Par” to the field. While Tim’s story might not be as exciting or polarizing as El Camarón’s, his perseverance is rivaled by no one.
Tim grew up in Savannah, began playing golf at age five, and after seeing two swings, coach Eddie offered him a college scholarship to Jackson State in Mississippi. O’Neal led JSU to become the first historically black college to reach the NCAA regionals.
Tim, with his Ken Griffey, Jr. backwards hat and swing as smooth as the Kid’s, was slated to be the next African American to play on the PGA TOUR alongside Tiger Woods. Will Smith personally sponsored O’Neal but failed to his renew his sponsorship after two less than impressive years on the now called Web.com tour. A couple heartbreaking Q-school showings, missing out on earning his TOUR card by triple bogeying the last hole when a bogey would suffice and another by one stroke, O’Neal was relegated to spend his career on the mini-tour circuit. When the casual golf fan thinks of mini-tour circuits, they usually think of the Canadian Tour, or the Florida mini-circuit, or at the low end The Dakotas Tour. Tim spent a good portion of his career at the better end on tours like the now defunct eGolf Professional Tour in Charlotte and at the more obscure end at the Atlas Pro Tour in Morocco. The Atlas Pro Tour website still shows Jason Day as being the World Number One, and it seems like they have taken to Facebook to keep fans updated with the current tour. Here are some pictures from their page. A lot of Camilo Villegas’s and big showing of the Push Cart Mafia:
Tim has been a rotating member of the Web.com tour and the PGA TOUR Latinoamérica Tour, but the expenses of travel have proven more costly than the earnings. In 2017 O’Neal earned $13,954 on the LAT as the 64th position in the order of merit. Tim has found some stability on the APGA tour, a non-profit put together by former PGA Tour player Adrian Stills and former Nestle executive Ken Bentley. As one of the more senior and experienced players on the APGA, Tim is in a position where he can provide insight and advice to other African Americans hopeful to earn status on the PGA TOUR. I, for one, would love to see this dude from the Big Break and his cross handed grip on TOUR.
Tiger Woods announced in January of this year that Tim O’Neal was the recipient of the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption. This comes ten years after Tim’s initial application. If there is any resentment harboring inside O’Neal he does not show it. In an ESPN article on TIm ahead of his US Open start in 2015, O’Neal responded to a question whether Tiger should have reached out more or not saying, “It’s hard for me to say that. Tiger’s his own person. Maybe. I’ve had people ask me that same question, and some find it shocking that he hasn’t reached out. I understand he might be in a tough spot, because let’s say he reaches out and tries to help me. Then it’s, ‘Well, why don’t you reach out more?’ You just never know how that would go.”
Whether or not he feels the most prominent golfer of all time should do more, Tim is firm in his stance on how difficult it can be to make it on the PGA TOUR without significant financial backing: “It’s really hard to play without a sponsor,” O’Neal was quoted in a 2013 ESPN article. “I’m not complaining, but people ask me all the time why there are not more African-Americans on tour and a part of the reason is that there is no money. Golf is one of one of those sports where if you don’t have any kind of financial backing, you can’t play.”
Speaking rather bluntly, O’Neal’s former coach has said, “The PGA model has failed miserably in growing the game in the black community here.” Financial backing for black golfers seems to be a struggle that Eddie Payton knows all too well. After offering his position as the head golf coach at Jackson State to O’Neal, Coach Payton resigned in 2016 only to see his program forced out due to budget cuts in 2017.
While Tim O’Neal is deservedly all smiles this week, his arduous past has been anything but easy. The bright future and chance at a fairy tale ending with a life on TOUR has most certainly passed by Tim, but I couldn’t imagine a better story than him making the cut this week.