Tim O’Neal earns PGA TOUR Champions status, exorcising Q-School demons
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Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – As a matter of practice, Final Stage of the PGA TOUR Champions Qualifying Tournament is contested in carts. Players have the option to walk or take a cart, and riding means optimal energy conservation for the rigors of a 72-hole competition.
It’s known as the toughest job interview in golf, 78 players for five PGA TOUR Champions cards. All 78 have earned access on merit, via either First Stage, prior TOUR success or another commendable achievement in golf.
Tim O’Neal was near the finish line. He had executed a bold approach shot on the par-4 18th hole at TPC Scottsdale (Champions) to the left fringe, 20 feet from the hole, not shying away from the water hugging the left side. The 50-year-old Savannah native has won on several Tours but never did earn a PGA TOUR card, his fate narrowly undone at Q-School on multiple occasions.
So after completing the task on the final hole Friday, O’Neal was in no hurry to abandon the moment. His caddie took the cart to the green, but O’Neal walked up the fairway on a sun-kissed Arizona afternoon.
It was a moment in time, and O’Neal didn’t let it pass him by. He made par for a 13-under total across 72 holes, good for a three-way tie for third alongside Brian Cooper and David McKenzie. Richard Green earned medalist honors at 18 under, with Wes Short, Jr., runner-up at 14 under. All five players gain access into all open, full-field events on the 2023 PGA TOUR Champions, beginning at the Chubb Classic in Naples, Florida, in late February.
“Man, I’m really at a loss of words,” O’Neal said after posing for a group photo with his fellow Q-School graduates. “I’ve been going to Q-School for a long time, and for me to get status, my first year going to Champions Tour Q-School, just crazy happy right now. I’m at a loss for words, but it’s been a long time coming for me.”
O’Neal turned 50 this summer and competed in two PGA TOUR Champions events, finishing T33 at the Ascension Charity Classic and T19 at the PURE Insurance Championship. All the while, he professed a desire to keep his game sharp for Q-School, building his practice regiment accordingly and competing in smaller events to stay sharp. He finished T12 at First Stage of Q-School in Florida to advance to TPC Scottsdale.
After countless near-misses at Q-Schools through the years, O’Neal is now 1-for-1 on the 50-and-over circuit. They say PGA TOUR Champions can be golf’s greatest mulligan, and O’Neal wasted no time in delivering on this premise.
It wasn’t without uncertainty, as O’Neal was well back of the pack midway through Final Stage. He opened in 69-72 and was eight outside the number. A third-round 65 moved him without striking distance, but he was still five off the pace into Friday’s final round. He needed another low one, and he delivered with his second straight 65.
“Every day,” said O’Neal when asked to pinpoint his peak nerves. “Every day when I teed off. Every shot. Q-School’s a different animal, very nerve-racking. It’s never easy. It’s not like a regular tournament; you’re just trying to hold on for dear life or make as many birdies as possible.
“Q-School’s never fun, at least not for me, unless I have like a 12-shot lead going to the last day. But I’m glad that this is over and that next year I’ll be playing the Champions Tour.”
When asked how he didn’t let prior Q-School near-misses get him down, O’Neal pointed to his inherent positive attitude. It’s a necessity in professional golf, he said, in order to carve out a lengthy career. He has won three times on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and made 154 career Korn Ferry Tour starts. He holds nine APGA titles.
But O’Neal had ample reason for the magnitude of Q-School to get him down. He needed bogey on the final hole of 2000 PGA TOUR Q-School at PGA West to earn his first TOUR card, but he pulled his tee shot into the water, made triple bogey and missed his card by two. Four years later, he had another chance, needing a 14-foot birdie to earn his TOUR card. It burned the edge.
“It’s always tough,” O’Neal said.
This week, though, he rewrote his Q-School narrative. And he proved something to himself.
“That I can play under pressure and get through Q-School,” he said. “I’ve been going to a lot of Q-Schools over the years, and for me to get status in my first time going (on PGA TOUR Champions) is huge. But I’ve been putting in the hard work, and I’m always trying to get better.”
Now the APGA alum is a PGA TOUR Champions pro, joining peers Willie Mack (Korn Ferry Tour) and Kamaiu Johnson (PGA TOUR Latinoamerica) with TOUR-sanctioned status next season.
O’Neal doesn’t get star-struck often – he was once sponsored by Will Smith – but there is one PGA TOUR Champions pro with whom he’s notably excited to rub elbows and perhaps share a practice round.
A certain Fred Couples.
“I know he doesn’t play that much, but he would be someone that I would love to get the chance to meet and play a round of golf with, for sure,” O’Neal said.
With access to a full PGA TOUR Champions slate in 2023, O’Neal is positioned to make that goal a reality. And the term “Q-School” no longer means heartache.
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.