For 22 years, Tim O’Neal was haunted by one letter followed by one word: Q School. Twice, O’Neal came to the final hole of the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School tournament with a chance to earn fulltime playing privileges. Twice, he was crushed by not getting the job done.
Today, all of those bad feelings and regrets about Q School vanished. The 50-year-old O’Neal, who has mostly toiled on mini-tours for the past two decades and considered leaving the competitive game numerous times, produced one of the most clutch finishes possible at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona. He birdied four of his last six holes to shoot a second straight six-under-par 65 on Friday and tied for third in PGA Tour Champions Q School to earn his full card for the 2023 season.
O’Neal moved up 10 spots in the final round to finish with a 13-under total to secure one of only five fulltime opportunities that are awarded in the final stage. Australian left-hander Richard Green, 51, earned medalist honors by shooting a 65 in the final round to finish at 18 under. He was followed by Wes Short Jr. (14 under), O’Neal, Australian David McKenzie and Brian Cooper.
The sixth through 30th finishers and ties get priority entrance into Monday qualifiers for Champions Tour events in 2023. Among that group were Kent Jones, Fran Quinn, Jason Bohn, Tom Gillis, Bob May, Todd Demsey, Dicky Pride, Matt Gogel, Omar Uresti and Charlie Wi.
O’Neal became eligible for the Champions Tour when he turned 50 on Aug. 3. He was immediately given a sponsor’s exemption into the Ascension Charity Classic in St. Louis, and in his first no-cut senior event he tied for 33rd. Two weeks later in the PURE insurance Championship at Pebble Beach, O’Neal opened with a 66 and eventually tied for 19th. He then tied for 12th in the first stage of Champions Q School at Buckhorn Springs to reach the finals.
“It’s definitely a fresh start for me, and that’s why I kind of want to hit the ground running when it’s time to play,” O’Neal told Golf Digest before his Ascension appearance. “I’ve done certain things to kind of stay in shape, and not let myself go and still work really hard.”
O’Neal’s first crushing experience came in the 2000 final stage at PGA West. He needed only a bogey on the 108th hole to get his card, but he thought he needed birdie and pulled his tee shot at PGA West into the water. From there, he made a triple bogey and missed getting his card by two shots.
Four years later, O’Neal needed to make a 14-foot birdie putt on the last hole to get his card, but burned the edge of the cup.
“I’m not going to lie, I think about it,” O’Neal told Golf Digest earlier this year.
“Sometimes, when I think about it, I know I had the skills to play on the PGA Tour, and I think I tried a little too hard. Sometimes you can want something too bad. I knew it was there for me, and then it wasn’t.”
O’Neal overcame his disappointment to become one of the most dominant players on the Associates Professional Golf Association tour that gives minorities more opportunities to play professional golf. This year, he won twice on the tour and lost in a playoff in the Farmers Insurance Open Invitational at Torrey Pines.
A native of Savannah, Ga., O’Neal played four full seasons on the now-Korn Ferry Tour between 2001 and ’07, with nine top-10s that included a solo runner-up to Greg Kraft in the 2006 Northeast Pennsylvania Classic. But, with ongoing financial struggles, he began teaching golf and didn’t see a path to competing anymore.
Then O’Neal joined a group of pros who traveled to Morocco in 2011, and when he won three times there, it gave O’Neal the confidence to earn his 2013 PGA Tour Latinoamerica card, where he won twice. He got back to the KFT the next season, but couldn’t keep his card.
Now the senior tour card is secured, and O’Neal has a whole new world of prospects ahead of him.