O'Neal so close, yet still so far

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Just like they had for the previous 107 holes, husband and wife walk together, side by side, marching to the final hole that will decide their fate.

Tim O'Neal, four years removed from his infamous Q School collapse, again trying to become the only African-American golfer on the PGA Tour not named Tiger Woods. Melody O'Neal, Tim's wife, hoping for the one big break that could change their lives.

Endorsements, publicity, money for medical school -- it all rests on this one fateful hole.

What everyone knows, no one verbalizes. Walking from the eighth green to the ninth tee (O'Neal played the back nine first), Tim keeps his hands in his pockets and his eyes ahead. Melody stands by his side, the supportive wife backing up her husband not with words, but with presence.

There are no scoreboards on the course, but O'Neal knows right where he is. Two under on the day and 6 under for the tournament, with the projected tour card cut at 7 under.

Ninth hole. Par-4. 452 yards.

Birdie and O'Neal is likely in.

Par or worse and he is likely out.

It is the line between life on the PGA Tour and life on the Nationwide Tour. The line between the BMW Tim and Melody want to drive and the Honda they have to drive.

Four years earlier, he was on the other side of the cut line, coming down the 18th fairway needing a bogey to reach the tour. He triple-bogeyed.

On Sunday night, family and friends left 15 messages of encouragement on his voicemail, promising him that this was his year. He hadn't been to the Q School finals since the 2000 collapse and now, with one hole to play, life presented itself with a golden chance for a redo.

The waiting is the hardest part
As O'Neal waits on the ninth tee for the group ahead of him to move on and the fairway to open up, the pressure mounts. Three caddies, two golfers, six cameramen and 12 other strangers stand still, all waiting to watch the drama unfold.

Right here, one soft-spoken 31-year-old man from Savannah, Ga., embodies all the drama that Q School promises. Stories like his happen every school, every year. And all that's on the line is a career. The difference between $240 million in PGA Tour prize money and $15 million on the Nationwide Tour.

It's one of the most pressure-packed moments in sports. And on this day, O'Neal is in the thick of it. With silence devouring the 18th green, Melody pulls out a digital camera and on a glorious, sun-splashed afternoon, snaps a couple shots of the picturesque fairway and mountainous horizon.

One has to wonder: Is it a picture of the hole that will change their lives? Or a souvenir of a day they'd rather forget?

For the better part of five-and-a-half days, Melody O'Neal has kept her nerves in check, keeping the highs and lows to herself, telling reporters that it's "just a game" and her husband's time was "sure to come."

But this is different. On the eighth tee, with the fairway in front of them backed up, Melody sat next to her husband on a secluded hill. Tensions were high. When she sees a stranger mention to caddie Wesley McLaughlin that the cut for the tour card appears to be 7 under and not six, Melody barks.

"You don't need to tell him," she said. "I don't want them to think they have it any point. They need to go for it. They need to go for it.

"It's not his next 12 months, it's ours."

Melody suggests that perhaps Tim should try some of the stretching and breathing techniques she's taught him to help relax.

"I ain't doing that now," he says.

Pressed as to whether the nerves are settling it, Melody admits, "They'll get to me on the last two holes."

"Well," the stranger says, "You're on the second-to-last hole."

"So then I guess I'm nervous," Melody responds.

It shouldn't have even come to this. An hour and a half earlier, O'Neal was in. A fabulous iron shot on the par-5 fifth left him with a tap-in for birdie to reach 7 under for the tournament, placing him in a share of 22nd place.

But on the next hole, a par 3, O'Neal three-putts, pushed a six-footer for par to the right. On the seventh, another four-foot putt, this one for birdie, he again pushed it to the right.

Two chances for breathing room. Two missed opportunities.

"That's nerves," his McLaughlin said. "He'll tell you it's a misread but when you keep pushing putts to the right, it means you're holding the club too tight. I told him, he's just got to relax. Make good shots the rest of the way and we'll be right there."

On eight, O'Neal's tee shot veered into the rough. From there, in the midst of his backswing, a television crew's golf cart slammed on its brakes. During his next shot, a leaf blower began to hum.

O'Neal was unfazed. He made par on the eighth, setting up the drama on nine. By now, reporters from all across the country, recalling his troubles in 2000, have shown up. Camera crews are not only following on the cart paths of each hole, but right next to O'Neal, jamming their cameras in his face.

"I'm ready for this hole to be finished," a skittish Melody says. "I'm ready for a birdie so we can breathe a little bit."

But the group can't hit until the fairway clears. A caddie in the group ahead of them rakes a fairway bunker.

"How long is that guy going to rake the sand?" Melody whispers.

Eighteen and life
After the fairway clears, O'Neal's group tees off. D.J. Trahan, 10 under for the tournament, is first. Middle of the fairway. Hideto Tanihara, 7 under for the tournament, is next. Fairway. Then it's O'Neal's turn. His shot fades to the right, richochets off a hill and ends up in the middle of the fairway.

A big break.

With 157 yards left, he's in the fairway, but has a sidehill lie. He attacks the pin, sticking his approach shot to within 15 feet of the hole.

A chance.

Trahan putts first. An on-course reporter whispers the play-by-play. "That putt is a little bit short, but this year, D.J. Trahan didn't come up short with a 67."

Then it's Tanihara's turn. His birdie putt rolls in, moving him to 8 under for the tournament. He's in, too.

Now it's up to O'Neal. Fifteen feet between him and his tour card. He pulls back, taps the ball with his putter and watches. Melody, standing on a hill behind the green, watches. The commentator, standing behind Melody, watches.

"For his tour card ..."

The ball rolls by the hole, missing by inches. To the right.

It isn't the disaster that was 2000. But it isn't success, either. It's somewhere in the middle. O'Neal must now wait, ironically enough, and hope that someone ahead of him does what he does in 2000.

"I don't know how to feel," he says afterwards, smiling with watery eyes. "I'm not sure if I should be disappointed or what. Anything can happen out there. I just have to wait and see."

O'Neal finishes tied for 36th, meaning six of the 35 players ahead of him must falter before he earns his card.

But as the afternoon continues to unfold, as the groups continue to come in, the truth becomes obvious. The number isn't going to move.

After six days, 108 holes, 426 shots, O'Neal is going to miss. By one.

Four hours after the drama unfolds, the massive, calligraphy-covered scoreboard tells the story. Thirty-five names are written in red ink. O'Neal's, the next name on the list, is written in blue.

A $5,000 check and status on the Nationwide Tour is a nice parting gift. But for the grand prize, he will again have to wait.

Yet he refuses to dwell on what might have been, instead looking ahead to what will be.

"It's a little bit of a hard pill to swallow, especially coming so close," O'Neal said Monday night. "But you've got to move on. Coulda, woulda, shoulda -- you think about it enough and it will drive you insane.

"The way I look at it, I did better than last year. And I'm really looking forward to playing on the Nationwide Tour, finishing in the top 20 and being on the PGA Tour in 2006."

The dream never dies.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.