O’Neal Exorcises Past Demons, Earns U.S. Open Spot

Tim O'Neal battled through a second-round 73 and three playoff holes to earn a spot in his first U.S. Open. (USGA/Simon Bruty)
Tim O'Neal battled through a second-round 73 and three playoff holes to earn a spot in his first U.S. Open. (USGA/Simon Bruty)

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Tim O’Neal has experienced enough heartbreak in golf to fill a scrap book.

Twice, he’s missed earning a PGA Tour card by a single stroke, including a double bogey on his final hole in the Q-School Finals in 2000. In last year’s U.S. Open sectional qualifying round here at Woodmont Country Club, a major traffic accident in the area cost the Savannah, Ga., native a chance to even compete. What should have been a 10-minute commute lasted 90 minutes, and O’Neal missed his scheduled starting time.

O’Neal,  42, returned this year to Woodmont, where 56 competitors were vying for three spots in next week’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. A 3-under-par 69 on the 7,166-yard North Course had O’Neal in a share of third following the morning round.

But O’Neal found himself flirting with  heartache in the afternoon.

“I thought I gave it away on the second 18,” said O’Neal. “I was really surprised that 2 under (148) got into a playoff.”

Indeed, redemption finally arrived for the journeyman professional, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2013 who only has conditional Web.com Tour status in 2015. In a playoff against Joshua Persons, of Fargo, N.D., and minutes before a major thunderstorm pounded the area, O’Neal rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt to punch his ticket to the biggest event of his 18-year career. For once, lightning struck O’Neal in a positive way.

Co-medalists Billy Hurley III, of Annapolis, Md., and Denny McCarthy, of Rockville, Md., both of whom shot 6-under 138, earned the first two spots. Hurley (66-72), a 2005 USA Walker Cup competitor and 2004 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, will be making his second consecutive U.S. Open start, while McCarthy (70-68), a 2015 University of Virginia graduate, earned his first U.S. Open trip. McCarthy, 22, advanced to the semifinals of last year’s U.S. Amateur and helped the USA claim the World Amateur Team Championship last fall in Japan.

Those credentials won’t be found on O’Neal’s résumé, but he’s likely bounced around more back roads than Hurley and McCarthy combined. Since turning pro in 1997 after playing for coach Eddie Payton at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., O’Neal, the only African American to win the Georgia State Amateur (1997), has competed on the Asian Tour, eGolf Tour, the Morocco-based Atlas Pro Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamerica and the Web.com Tour. He even was sponsored for two years by actor Will Smith.

But the PGA Tour, as well as his first major championship appearance, have eluded him. Monday looked like another near-miss, despite a strong start, which had him at 5 under par through 23 holes.

That’s when the wind, and perhaps visions of Chambers Bay, began swirling in all directions. Three bogeys in a four-hole stretch sent O’Neal spiraling down the leader board. Then he made two consecutive birdies on Nos. 10 and 11, only to follow up with a bogey and double bogey. Two more birdies followed on 14 and 15 with another bogey added on 16.

O’Neal wasn’t sure where he stood, but was told by an official after leaving the 17th green that a birdie at 18 might get the job done.

A par at 18 was good enough for a 1-over 73 and into a 2-for-1 playoff against Persons, a former University of Minnesota golfer who has also made a living on various tours. Three holes later, O’Neal was in the U.S. Open, but not without some drama on the second playoff hole. He needed to convert an uphill 7-footer to keep the playoff going.

“You can miss those really easy,” said O’Neal. “But there’s only two things that can happen: Either I’m going to make it or miss it. I just told myself to hit a good putt and whatever happens, happens.”

Hurley, who has one top-10 and three top-25 finishes in 19 starts on the PGA Tour in 2015, had no such anxiety. Starting on the par-5 10th in the morning, he went birdie-eagle-birdie, which included a hole-out for a 2 on the par-4 11th from 160 yards. A bogey-free 66 left Hurley, who will turn 33 on Tuesday, two clear of the field after the morning 18. He reached 8 under in the afternoon before giving a couple shots back coming home when conditions stiffened.

For Hurley, the 48-mile drive to Woodmont felt like a home game. He’s always felt comfortable on the North Course and that experience paid off.

“When I got to six and seven [in the afternoon], the course got dicey,” said Hurley. “It was like you were already playing the U.S. Open. I dialed it back a little. I didn’t think anybody was going to do better than 5 or 6 [under].”

McCarthy, another local favorite, was in a precarious position through 27 holes. His caddie and older brother, Ryan, informed him as they left the first tee that he shared third position at 3 under.

“We knew making the turn that we had to make something happen,” said Ryan, who competed in this year’s inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship in May at The Olympic Club.

With about 50 friends and family following him for the final nine holes, McCarthy put on a show, registering three consecutive birdies from the first hole – his 10th of the round – and adding another birdie at the fifth before making his lone bogey of the round at the par-4 ninth.

Plenty of hugs and handshakes were exchanged after McCarthy signed his card.

Now McCarthy gets a return trip to Chambers Bay, where he reached the Round of 64 in the U.S. Amateur before losing to John Chin. More importantly, it adds another key achievement to his Walker Cup hopes. McCarthy’s goal since last summer has been to make the USA Team for the Match in September at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

While he had a solid year at Virginia, he didn’t post a win, so qualifying for the U.S. Open kick-starts his summer campaign.

“Anytime you qualify for a USGA event, let alone a U.S. Open, helps,” he said. “Now that I am in a good spot to do it, I’ve just got to keep plugging along and the rest will take care of itself.”

NOTES: While Persons earned first-alternate status, Paul Peterson, of Purcellville, Va., won a 3-for-1 playoff for the second-alternate spot … Notables who failed to qualify included PGA Tour players Steve Wheatcroft; 2012 U.S. Open runner-up Michael Thompson; Derek Tolan, who qualified for the 2002 U.S. Open at 16; 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur semifinalist Adam Ball; and 15-year-old Mason Williams, the youngest player in sectional qualifying.