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Tim O’Neal continues his golf journey with boost from inaugural tourney

The John Shippen National Invitational highlights the 20 most promising Black players in the game

On Monday during the final round of the John Shippen National Invitational at the Detroit Golf Club on the city’s northwest side, reporters deliberated over the age of the men’s division winner Tim O’Neal. “His Wikipedia page says he’s 48,” said a reporter. “But he doesn’t look that old.”

O’Neal, who will be 49 in August, doesn’t look like where he’s been. A failed marriage and nearly three decades of struggling to play golf for a living might have dulled his smile and thickened his waistline and added lines to his face, but the Savannah, Georgia, native is as youthful, optimistic and fit as he was when I first met him more than 30 years ago on the junior golf circuit in Georgia. His stamina and drive to succeed against all odds were on full display in the John Shippen, where he shot in this inaugural 36-hole competition a final-round 4-under-par 68 on Monday for a 5-under-par total to hold off Kevin Hall for a two-shot victory. At 38 years old, Hall was the second-oldest behind O’Neal in this field of the 20 most promising Black players in the country.

The victory earned O’Neal a spot into the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, which begins Thursday on the Detroit Golf Club’s North course. In the women’s division, Shasta Averyhardt and Anita Uwadia beat Breanne Jones and Sierra Sims to earn an exemption into the LPGA’s Cognizant Founders Cup in October.

“I haven’t really played well since my mother died last November,” said O’Neal, who has two children, Jordan, 19, and Jayden, 15. “But I did expect to win this qualifier. I knew that there was just a handful of guys that I knew I had to beat and luckily I played well enough on Monday to get the win.”

The tournament is named for John Shippen, the first American-born golf professional and the first Black golf professional. Born in 1879, Shippen played in the second U.S. Open in 1896 at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and led the championship after the first round before finishing in fifth place. Shippen, whose father was a Presbyterian minister on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, learned to play golf at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which was built on the tribe’s ancestral land. In 1891, 150 Shinnecock tribal members helped lay out the first 12 holes of the course. According to Shinnecock’s architect, Willie Dunn, the land was dotted with Indian burial grounds. Dunn left some of the mounds intact and made them into bunkers. Later in his career, Shippen, who died in 1968 at the age of 90, was the head pro at the Shady Rest Golf Course, the first Black golf club in the United States.

As one of the key organizers of the tournament, Sommer Woods is doing her part to make sure that Shippen’s legacy is not forgotten or marginalized in the annals of golf history or American history. Her mission, which is the tournament’s mission, is to “create opportunities in golf for Black men and women” and to ensure that Shippen’s legacy is understood as one of “Black history, but also of American history.”

I became friends with Woods around the same time that I met O’Neal, when we were all kids playing in golf tournaments. We each played golf at historically Black schools: Woods at Talladega College, O’Neal at Jackson State and me at Florida A&M. After college, we took different routes to careers in the game. O’Neal became a pro golfer, Woods first worked in tournament operations for the PGA Tour and I became a golf writer.

At the awards ceremony on Monday, Woods said that her dream had once been to become a PGA Tour tournament director, but that she now believed that all of her experience had prepared her for the larger purpose of the John Shippen National Invitational and to make the game a more diverse and inclusive place for Black people.

For years, O’Neal has embodied Woods’ objectives in his pursuit to make the PGA Tour. The Rocket Mortgage Classic will mark only his eighth appearance in a PGA Tour event, but he’s long been a popular and respected player. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson has known O’Neal since their days playing together on the mini-tours. “I love Tim’s fight,” Watson told me. “I’ve said that to win a tournament something has to go your way and something has to not go the way for somebody else. Things have to go your way in this game and that hasn’t happened for Tim yet for him to make it to the PGA Tour. But he’s inspiring people that he doesn’t know about because he’s proven that he can still play.”

O’Neal is probably best known for blowing a chance to earn his PGA Tour card at the 2000 Q-school finals when he made a triple bogey on the final hole to miss gaining full playing privileges by two shots. That misfortune still gnaws at him, but he had six full seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour and many other chances since then to earn his card.

What doesn’t change is the reality of being one of the very few Black golfers in a pro game that predominantly consists of white players. He’s lived this fact for most of his life, from the time his parents, Eva and James O’Neal, started him in the game when he was 5 years old. Wherever he played in the Deep South, he got those stares from people who thought he was out of place, but once they saw him hit a ball, they never again doubted his right to be there. In 1997, O’Neal won the Georgia Amateur Championship, becoming the first and only African American to win that coveted title in a state rich with golf history.

During the John Shippen, the two worlds that O’Neal knows best converged for several hours over two days. One is a vibrant and nurturing Black golf community that is personified in Detroit, where Black people built their own golf community for generations. An all-Black field on a Detroit golf course with a Black gallery is a reminder of when Joe Louis hosted the biggest tournament in the 1940s there on the all-Black UGA circuit.

The other presence is the PGA Tour with its stadium seating and TV trucks and mostly white players, who began to trickle in on Monday at the Detroit Golf Club as O’Neal was completing his final round. O’Neal traded high-fives and jokes with old friends such as Watson, Harold Varner III and many other tour players and equipment representatives whom he’s known over the years. For lunch, O’Neal was back with many of the young Black pros from the John Shippen field whom he had mentored during his time on the predominantly Black APGA Tour. He ran into a Black woman who overlapped with him at Jackson State, where he won 16 college tournaments. They laughed and reminisced about old times and what to do to bring back their alma mater’s golf program, which suspended its men’s and women’s teams in 2017 after budget cuts. O’Neal is nourished by both these worlds. He needs one as much as the other to reach his goals as a pro golfer.

Standing off to the side was his caddie, Miles Allen, a 27-year-old African American Detroit native who has aspirations of becoming a PGA Tour caddie. A caddie for the last nine years, Allen had never met O’Neal before Sunday ahead of the start of the first round. “For the last couple of years I have followed Tim on social media and I knew how good he was,” Allen told me. “I was hoping that I would get his bag.”

For O’Neal, Allen’s familiarity with the Donald Ross golf course was a key asset for him, particularly since torrential rains had forced the maintenance staff to cancel the tournament’s practice round on June 26. “Miles knows the course a lot better than me,” O’Neal said. “I don’t trust anybody, but I grew to trust his reads on some of the greens.”

Now Allen will have an opportunity to help O’Neal make his first cut in a PGA Tour event after failing in seven previous attempts. Closing in on 50, O’Neal has the PGA Tour Champions in his sights, but this week his focus is on the now. Concerns over bills and where to find $6,000 to pay for Q-school can wait. “I’m thankful for every opportunity that I get to prove that I can compete with the best players in the world,” he said. “Everything that I’ve been through has just made me more committed to getting better. There has never been a doubt that I had the game to play on tour. I just have to get acclimated to the surroundings, because there is a lot more to a PGA Tour event.”

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.