Tim O'Neal seeks PGA Tour dream

Tim O'Neal doesn't travel to golf tournaments with one of the big staff bags that players use on the PGA Tour. The 41-year-old native of Savannah, Ga., can't afford the extra fees that many airlines charge for overweight baggage.

Bridgestone, his club manufacturer, wanted him to tote a new staff bag for this week's Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament, which begins Thursday at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., but O'Neal is sticking with his lightweight carry bag for the six-round, 108-hole marathon.

He scoured the Internet until he found the best hotel rate for his 10-night stay in the Palm Springs area. And rather than hire a tour caddie for the week for about $2,500, he brought along a friend from home to perform the task.

O'Neal is not completely desperate, but frugality is a means of survival in a sport that's difficult to thrive in without substantial financial backing from either individuals or corporate sponsors.

The greatest pressure in the game, many players say, isn't often the putt to win the tournament, but the one that could make a difference in meeting the mortgage or putting gas in the car to reach the next event.

On the PGA Tour's Latin American series this year, O'Neal earned $90,015. His third-place finish on the money list got him a spot in this week's Q-school finals and conditional status on the Web.com Tour. A 45th-place finish or better at PGA West would give him better status and a chance to play a full schedule.

"I might have made $90,000 in Latin America," said O'Neal, who has not had a sponsor in more than 10 years, "but I have probably spent at least half of that on travel, hotels and entry fees, and I still have bills at home. So I didn't really make much money."

As a child, he loved golf for the sheer joy of hitting shots and for the competition. As an adult, the game suddenly became the means to support his family and a tough business as an independent contractor.

"It's really hard to play without a sponsor," said O'Neal, who was sponsored by actor Will Smith for two years early in his pro career. "I'm not complaining, but people ask me all the time why there are not more African-Americans on tour and a part of the reason is that there is no money.

"Golf is one of one of those sports where if you don't have any kind of financial backing, you can't play."

Q-school represents hope on his arduous journey. Come the start of the Web.com season in 2014, O'Neal should have a few sponsorships to lessen the burden of playing well simply to help pay his bills.

"That's what makes it tough, when you're trying to make ends meet and you don't play well," said O'Neal, who turned pro in 1997. "My wife has worked. So that's taken the pressure off at times. But it's never easy."

To O'Neal, earning a PGA Tour card is not the most important thing. His wife and two young children are the center of his life. Yet for close to 20 years, he has been consumed with this quest to reach the game's most elite circuit. And when the opportunity to reach golf's big leagues comes around every year, it's a keen reminder of an unfulfilled dream.

For the first time in the 48-year history of the qualifying tournament, golfers like O'Neal won't have a chance to make it directly from this event to the big tour. Now, instead of 25 regular tour cards awarded at Q-school, the finalists will earn membership exclusively on the Web.com Tour.

"It's the system that's in place now," O'Neal concedes. "So unless you get some exemptions into some regular tour events and play well, it's the only way to get out there. It's just another way to prove yourself and get to the show.

"But I don't like it where you can't get to the tour directly from Q-school anymore. Even if they had five spots, that's better than not having any."

The life of a penny-pinching journeyman was not in O'Neal's sights as he stood on the 18th hole of the Nicklaus Tournament Course on the last day of the 2000 Q-school finals at PGA West. All the former Jackson State golfer needed was a bogey on that final hole to secure his card. Instead, he hit his tee shot into a hazard and made a triple-bogey to miss earning his card by 2 shots.

Never mind that he walked to that final tee thinking that he needed birdie to get his card or that many in the golf world were rooting for him because they wanted to see another African-American on the PGA Tour.

O'Neal soldiered on and had a few good years on the Web.com Tour. Since dropping off that tour after a poor 2008 season, he has done short stints on the Asian Tour, the European Professional Development Tour in Morocco and the eGolf Tour in the U.S. In 2011, he stopped playing competitively to work as a swing instructor.

Most who attempt a life as a pro golfer will fail. And many of them will likely leave the game or seek a job as a swing instructor or club professional.

O'Neal's coach at Jackson State, Eddie Payton, has tried to persuade his program's greatest recruit to come back to his alma mater and take over the men's golf team. But the former Georgia State Amateur champion, the first African-American to win that title, is committed to seeing his plan through to play the big tour.

The PGA Tour's Latin America series, which was formed in 2012 with 11 tournaments, has helped O'Neal resuscitate these aspirations.

In April at the Roberto De Vicenzo Invitational in Uruguay, he lost in a three-way playoff. The next week, he won in Colombia. In his final three starts of the year before heading home to Savannah for Thanksgiving, he had a tie for third, a fourth and a win in Chile, which guaranteed him status on the Web.com Tour.

O'Neal has matured mightily since blowing his first chance in the Q-school finals in 2000.

"I'm definitely stronger mentally," he said. "That's been one of the main things that's changed. A lot of that comes with age."

O'Neal, who is making his fourth trip to Q-school finals -- all at PGA West -- isn't yielding anything to age or lost time.

"The golf ball doesn't know how old I am," he said. "I think I'm playing some of the best golf that I have ever played. I'm in pretty good shape for my age. It's just a matter of getting it into the hole.

"Deep down inside I know that I have the game to play the PGA Tour. That's what's really kept me going. If I thought I couldn't do it, I probably wouldn't have worked so hard. The belief is there. That's why I am where I am now."