Tim O'Neal reflects on his up-and-down season on PGA TOUR Champions
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Written by Bob McClellan @ChampionsTour
Once he got through Qualifying School, Tim O’Neal strongly believed he could match anyone PGA TOUR Champions had to offer with distance off the tee.
The Savannah, Georgia, native wasn’t wrong, either. Through 15 events this year, the rookie leads PGA TOUR Champions in Driving Distance at a hearty average of 306.2 yards. If he ends the season in at least the same place, it will rank second all-time. Better than any season John Daly has had since turning 50, as well as any that one of his golfing idols, Fred Couples, has posted.
What O’Neal, who turned 51 on Aug. 3, didn’t necessarily count on was the gap between his wedge game and that of his fellow pros.
“They get it inside 120 yards, they don’t miss,” O’Neal said this week after finishing T9 at the Boeing Classic, his best finish of 2023 and his second top 10. “They hit it close. I’m watching (Bernhard) Langer, (Steve) Stricker … any time those guys have wedge in their hands, it’s on. And it’s not just sometimes. It’s consistently. That’s where I need to get.”
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O’Neal, who now sits 44th in the Charles Schwab Cup standings (the top 36 automatically earn their card for next season), comes off as shy and unassuming, but he’s frank in assessing his season to date.
“Honestly, I thought I’d have more top 10s by now,” he said from Calgary, where he was preparing for this week’s Shaw Charity Classic. “I realized really quick I need to get my short game in order. It hasn’t been as good as it needs to be.
“It doesn’t have to be great. It’s not very good, but it’s getting better. I’m starting to putt better. I’ve had to work really hard on my short game and putting to get up to where I know I can go out and put up a good score.”
O’Neal ranks 58th in Putting Average, 74th in Scrambling, and 76th in Sand Save Percentage. He said he always has been a streaky putter, and that remains the case. So it’s fair to say he knows what he needs to work on.
After 13 holes on Sunday at the Boeing Classic, O’Neal looked likely to finish in the top five. He was 2-under par for the round, 10 under for the tournament and still had both reachable par 5s on the back nine to play. But what he called a bad bounce led to a bogey on 14. At the par-5 15th he hit his second shot long and over the green, and he said a weird angle prevented him from getting up and down for birdie.
At 16, he admits his second shot got away from him and sailed long and left. It led to another bogey. Now running hot under the collar, O’Neal hit two balls in the water on the difficult par-3 17th and took a quadruple bogey.
He’d gone 6 over in a four-hole stretch and dropped from T3 to outside the top 10 with only the par-5 18th to play.
“I was not happy,” O’Neal said. “I was seeing red. But I hit a good drive in the fairway. Had 203 to the front, 224 to the hole, wind hurting a little bit. Hit a 4-iron just right at it. I didn’t realize it was that close till I got up to the green.”
O’Neal nearly holed it for an albatross. As it was, he had less than 2 feet for an eagle. It salvaged his round and his tournament.
“That’s just golf,” said O’Neal, who added that it was special to get a top 10 at a tournament hosted by Couples. “It’s a long season. It hasn’t been great, but it has been OK. Everyone has been super nice to me, and I’m learning, just trying to get better every week. So we’re here in Canada ready to tee it up and see what we can do this week.”