‘I’ve never had anything like this’
The John Shippen was a welcome opportunity for Black golfers trying to reach the game’s upper echelon
June 28, 2021
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
- Tim O’Neal finished at 5 under par to win The John Shippen men’s tournament. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
DETROIT – Trust the process.
That’s what Tiger Woods told Wyatt Worthington, II at a Tiger Woods Foundation junior clinic in Columbus, Ohio, 20 years ago. Worthington was 14, but he remembers it vividly.
The advice sounds simple, but for those on the fringes that trust can be hard to come by with obstacles around every corner. Tournament fees, equipment costs, gas money, food and lodging – the costs of trying to make it can be prohibitive.
Then along comes The John Shippen, a limited-field, two-day tournament to further the careers of top amateur and professional Black men and women golfers. The Shippen, in its inaugural playing at Detroit Golf Club, paid for airfare, rental cars, lodging and meals so that competitors could chase the dream.
“This is unbelievable to me,” Worthington (75-70) said. “I’ve never had anything like this.”
John Shippen, Jr., was the first American-born golf professional and the country’s first Black golf professional. His eponymous tournament Sunday and Monday featured 21 men playing for a spot in this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, and 12 women, who played a team format. They were vying for spots in the LPGA Tour’s Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, also a team event, July 14-17; and the Cognizant Founder’s Cup, Oct. 4-10.
Tim O’Neal, who will turn 49 in August and is thus on the cusp of PGA TOUR Champions eligibility, shot a second-round 68 to reach 5 under par and win the men’s tournament by two over playing partner Kevin Hall (69).
R.J. Young (68) and Kamaiu Johnson (69) tied for third at 2 under, three back.
On the women’s side, Shasta Averyhardt and Anita Uwadia won the team portion, while 17-year-old Amari Avery, who played in the U.S. Women’s Open and was featured in the documentary “The Short Game,” won the individual shootout.
O’Neal has missed seven cuts in seven career PGA TOUR starts, the last at the 2019 Genesis Invitational. He’s made his living on the mini-tours, including the Korn Ferry Tour and minority-focused APGA Tour. He was “so super happy,” he said, to punch his ticket into the Rocket Mortgage, but aware of the bigger picture, too. Because in a sense, with the Shippen allowing players to test their games on a PGA TOUR course in TOUR conditions, there was more than one winner.
“Guys are getting exposure playing courses like this,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to help them down the road, for sure. It’s just a little bit different from playing in a regular tournament.”
Joseph Bramlett, who along with fellow Rocket Mortgage participants Cameron Champ and Harold Varner III showed up to the trophy ceremony afterward, echoed that sentiment. “Absolutely,” Bramlett said. “It’s a two-day event, so more than just an 18-hole qualifier. It’s not an opportunity you get very often to get to play out here, and to be able to take that knowledge and see how your game stacks up, it’s invaluable.”
O’Neal made seven birdies, including two on his last three holes. He was the oldest player in the field, but with 84 made cuts including nine top-10 finishes in 153 career Korn Ferry Tour starts, better to call him battle-tested.
“Hopefully it’s going to inspire guys not to quit and keep grinding,” he said.
The grinders were everywhere you looked at the Shippen. Worthington, a teaching professional from Columbus, Ohio, who also plays the APGA Tour, qualified for the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Although he missed the cut, he learned from the experience and fondly remembers playing partners Chris Kirk and Freddy Jacobson.
“I’m fortunate and blessed to have had that opportunity,” he said. “It’s different when you’re right there with those players, but I knew then that I could do this if I just get the opportunity.”
As soon as he found out he was in The Shippen, he called Andy Gibson, an old college friend who now works as the first assistant pro at Bonita Bay Club in Naples, Florida, to caddie for him. They enjoyed some nice moments – Worthington made five birdies in his first 11 holes Monday – even if it didn’t all add up to a win in the strictest sense.
Others in the Shippen field are just starting out, but they, too, are familiar with the grind.
Ryan Alford (75-77), who played for Louisiana Tech, just turned 25. He has played some with David Toms, and was high school teammates with TOUR winner Sam Burns, who is still a friend.
“Getting to see a PGA TOUR course in tournament conditions, I think it’s awesome,” Alford said as he packed up, bound for Tyler, Texas, and a qualifier for the state open. “I’m glad they’re doing it.”
Andrew Walker (72-77), a newly minted Michigan State graduate, was headed for Alabama to play in the Auburn University Club Invitational, the second event on the Forme Tour.
He, too, was disappointed, but not hugely so. He’d gotten an all-expenses trip to play on a TOUR course, and had a small, mobile fan club in his mom, Nancy Walker, who drove nine hours from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; and his older brother, Filmore, who caddied for him.
“It’s hard to say anything else other than it’s awesome,” Walker said. “I think if you were to ask any of my playing competitors or any of the people around here, it’s something that’s great to see finally happening. Hopefully it’s the first step of many to try to bring some more equality to the game.”