For at least one week, professional golfer Tim O'Neal will transition from elder statesman to a junior member of the senior circuit.
The Savannah native and resident, having turned 50 earlier this month, will make his debut on the PGA Tour Champions for the 50-and-over set on Sept. 9-11 at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis.
O'Neal's career path through the sport's pro circuits from mini-tours to the PGA Tour has taken him to nearly every continent. He's been starring in recent years on the Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA) Tour. He's been a mentor to waves of younger players half his age while often beating them on the leaderboard.
While not exactly entering his golden years in life, O'Neal now has a golden ticket — a sponsor exemption — to play next month in the Ascension Charity Classic presented by Emerson.
In his own words, "it's really a big deal for me."
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"Sponsor exemptions are really hard to come by. This is really a big deal for me," said O'Neal, who thanked the tournament and sponsors. "I've played golf for a long time, and I feel like I'm getting a new start. It's been a long journey. I've worked really hard and am still working hard. To get this opportunity to be able to play in my first Champions Tour event in St. Louis, I'm super happy and just happy for the opportunity."
A door has been opened to a highly competitive (and potentially lucrative) wing of the PGA Tour, one that already includes fellow Savannah native Gene Sauers. Should O'Neal parlay this opportunity to gain status for future Champions Tour events, this could be a career-changing second half to his life in golf.
It's happened to other golfers without little to no PGA Tour experience or success, such as New Zealander Steven Alker, the current No. 1 player on the Champions Tour. Or O'Neal's friend Scott Parel of Augusta, a veteran of the Korn Ferry Tour who has played in five PGA Tour events and, like Alker, has made an impact with four Champions Tour victories apiece.
They're writing new chapters to their stories, beginning from age 50.
"That's what I'm hoping for," said O'Neal, who already has registered for the 2023 PGA Tour Champions Qualifying Tournament, or Q-School, that starts in November. "That's why I still go to the gym and try to stay in shape and be ready for this opportunity. It is here now. It's definitely a fresh start for me. That's why I want to hit the ground running when it's time to play."
O'Neal has been playing for a long time, from his tween years being dropped off at Bacon Park Golf Course and playing golf with other kids all day in the summers ("We walked 45 holes sometimes," he said), to his standout careers at Johnson High School and Jackson State University.
His goal since turning pro in 1997 isn't unusual, just extremely difficult — to get a PGA Tour card. O'Neal came tantalizingly and painfully close twice in the qualifying tournament finals — missing out by one stroke in both 2000 and 2004.
He's been grinding the whole time, and has played in nine PGA Tour events, including the 2015 U.S. Open. He has played one level below in 75-plus events in what is now called the Korn Ferry Tour, including the Club Car Championship at The Landings Club.
O'Neal — father of daughter Jordan and son Jayden — hasn't stopped, keeping home base in Savannah while traveling the world.
"I've played all over: Australia, Asia, I've been pretty much everywhere," O'Neal said. "I've enjoyed it. Golf has taken me to some nice places. Got to see a lot of nice things. So, hopefully, this next half will be just as good."
Credit to the APGA Tour
He understands he wouldn't be in this position without the APGA Tour, which not coincidentally has a tournament the same week in the St. Louis area at Glen Echo Country Club.
The APGA is a non-profit organization with the mission to bring greater diversity to the game of golf. O'Neal played in the first APGA Tour event in 2010, when it had only three. He has won nine tournaments and captured two annual points standings in 2018 and 2020.
The tour schedule has 18 events and includes such elite courses as Baltusrol in New Jersey, Valhalla in Kentucky and Torrey Pines in California — with over $800,000 in prize and bonus money this year.
"From where it started in 2010 to where it is now, it is leaps and bounds," O'Neal said. "I never saw this coming, but the courses we play now are unbelievable. We started off with three tournaments a year, and they just grew from there."
He said the APGA has given him a place to play with competitive tournaments when he lacked status for larger tours, or in the case of the COVID pandemic, couldn't travel overseas. The APGA kept his game sharp for when he played on PGA Tour Latinoamerica and won a total of three events (in 2013 and 2016).
The APGA helped him, and he gives back in return. Advocates CEO Kenneth Bentley called O'Neal a stalwart of the tour with more career wins than anyone else.
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"The reason why our players are so excited about Tim getting this exemption is that he's been a mentor to them," Bentley said. "His professionalism and the way he goes about preparing for golf have been an inspiration. Tim prepares for every tournament like it's the U.S. Open."
O'Neal has set an example for new generations of golfers who hope the APGA is a springboard to the next levels of the sport.
"I think it's just awesome that he's getting this exemption," Bentley said, "because I really think it's a reward for the way he's carried himself and what he's accomplished in his golf career."
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at email@example.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Tim O'Neal Savannah pro golfer on PGA Tour Champions St. Louis event