Tim O'Neal lives the challenge of the African-American golfer

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- Walter Payton's brother, Eddie, had been a hell of an athlete himself -- a football, baseball and basketball star who grew into a good enough NFL return man to once take back a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same game. He could zigzag his way around a golf course, too, ultimately playing to a 2 handicap and becoming one of the most successful college coaches in America at Jackson State.

Eddie Payton had seen a lot from tee to green by the early 1990s, but nothing quite like the high school recruit out of Savannah, Georgia, he scouted one day on an unsolicited tip, a kid named Tim O'Neal.

"He watched me hit my first tee shot and my second shot and just drove off," O'Neal recalled Tuesday as he prepared to play in the U.S. Open. "He didn't say anything. I had no idea where he went."

And there was a pretty good reason for that.

"I only needed to see those two swings to decide to offer him a scholarship," Payton said from his office at Jackson State. "I've never seen a swing that fluid and powerful. Everyone works toward creating one that will repeat over and over, and whenever you see it, you know it."

All these years later, O'Neal is ready to unleash that swing at Chambers Bay as something of a rare major championship presence. He is a 42-year-old first-timer, for one, and the only African-American player in the field not named Tiger Woods, for two.

O'Neal is a bit older than 39-year-old Woods, so he does not represent a next generation of professional black golfers inspired by Woods' 1997 triumph at Augusta National, where Lee Elder was the first African-American player invited to the Masters in 1975, 28 years after Jackie Robinson's debut at Ebbets Field. In fact, that next generation of black golfers on the PGA Tour does not exist.

Woods has blamed "the advent of the golf cart" and the elimination of caddie programs for the lack of diversity on a PGA Tour that hasn't seen a black winner other than Woods since 1986. "You've got to watch [golf], simulate it," the 14-time major winner said at the Players' Championship last month. "You've got to be around it. That's all gone. So we don't have the pool of players anymore."

When finished sharing a practice round Tuesday with Bubba Watson, his former roommate in golf's minor leagues, O'Neal talked to ESPN.com about the disconnect between his sport and the black athlete. Golf has a shameful history of exclusion at the country club and professional levels (the PGA of America didn't rescind its "Caucasian only" clause until 1961), and yet in 1976, there were 12 African-Americans on the PGA Tour, or 11 more than today.

"Most of it is financial," said O'Neal, who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour. "There are guys right now who have the game, but you have to play in other tournaments to prepare for Q-school and to get ready to play the Web.com. You just can't be a part-time professional golfer who also works if you really want to do it, because the competition is too good and everyone else is practicing every day. You can't do it halfway, and that's really the problem.

"It's not just affording country clubs, but the best teachers, also. You need someone looking at you, and a place to practice, and you need to play on the mini tours to prepare. And if you don't have $50,000 on the low end to do it, you're fighting an uphill battle. It's just a lost cause."

Much like high-end youth baseball, now defined by the financial resources required for equipment, instruction and participation in elite travel leagues, high-end youth golf remains largely a story of wealth, access and uneven playing fields.

O'Neal pointed to Harold Varner III, a promising 24-year-old on the Web.com Tour, as a black prospect with the goods to be a keeper. But he doesn't see a new wave of players coming behind Varner.

"As far as it being different 10-15 years from now," O'Neal said, "it's hard for me to say that. I'm not just saying it's hard for black players; it's difficult for young white players who struggle financially, too. I've played with guys who have the skills but just don't have the financial backing to get over the hump.

"The only way I think you'll see a minority kid or black kid get a sponsor or help is if he's a world-beater like Tiger Woods. ... From what I've seen, if the young black player's not a world beater who is making a lot of money, sponsors will pull out. I've had it happen to me."

The actor Will Smith didn't renew a two-year sponsorship of O'Neal early in his pro career, though the golfer credited Smith for helping him improve over those two years and for providing him the resources necessary to work with Butch Harmon, who was once Tiger Woods' coach. Sponsors -- even temporary ones -- allow young, against-the-odds hopefuls like O'Neal to try to clear par-5 lakes and creeks on second shots rather than lay up in fear of a fatal bogey. "Without Will Smith helping me," O'Neal said, "I might not be here now."

He can't say the same about Woods, though he addresses his non-relationship with the all-time great as a matter of fact and not as an indictment. Only three words deep into a question about whether Tiger has offered him any verbal or text/email support, O'Neal intercepted the thought with a firm, "No, no," and a shake of the head. They've met only once, as college players at a tournament in Hilton Head, South Carolina. "That was the only time I ever spoke to Tiger, and that was briefly," O'Neal said.

Asked if he should've expected more from Woods, O'Neal responded, "It's hard for me to say that. Tiger's his own person. Maybe. I've had people ask me that same question, and some find it shocking that he hasn't reached out. I understand he might be in a tough spot, because let's say he reaches out and tries to help me. Then it's, 'Well, why don't you reach out more?' You just never know how that would go."

Truth is, Woods has a foundation and learning center programs that, according to his foundation's web site, "break the cycle of poverty through college-access opportunities for low-income students." That's a noble pursuit for an athlete who has the right to pick and choose his off-the-course causes, and who doesn't have an obligation to help any golfer other than the one in his bathroom mirror.

Either way, Payton, who's been on the job for 29 years, criticized golf's elders in the U.S. for neglecting a domestic talent pool while development systems in faraway lands keep producing winners on the men's and women's tours.

"The PGA model has failed miserably in growing the game in the black community here," said Payton, who found a pathway to golf -- and a job as a caddie, making $2 a loop -- through his mother, Alyne, who worked a second job as a weekend cook at the local country club in Columbia, Mississippi. "As a race of people, we're in the same position in the game of golf we were in the 1960s. We're one bad swing away from not having a single representative on the PGA Tour."

But at Jackson State in the 1990s, Payton's No. 1 player was just as dominant as Woods would later be in the big leagues. O'Neal made Jackson State the first historically black college to reach the NCAA regionals, and he won enough tournament titles to inspire predictions of PGA Tour stardom.

O'Neal missed earning his tour card at Q-school in 2000 by making an unholy water-and-sand mess of his final hole when a mere bogey would've earned him the promotion, and he lipped out a birdie putt that would've earned him his card in 2004. He gave up the game and the dream for a year of giving lessons rather than receiving them in 2011, altered his swing so he could shape the ball from right to left, and returned to win three tournaments in Morocco in 2013 and two more on the Latinoamerica Tour last year.

All that global grinding to support his wife and two young children recently paid off in a big way at Maryland's Woodmont Country Club, where O'Neal had missed his U.S. Open sectional qualifying tee time last year after a car accident left him stuck in a major traffic jam. He made a 12-foot putt in a playoff to earn his spot at Chambers Bay, and he immediately called his mother, an amateur golf champion herself in Savannah, to tell her he was about to tee it up with the big boys.

O'Neal has no experience playing links golf, and yet he said he believes he can get hot and lucky and make it to the weekend at the USGA's answer to the Open Championship overseas.

"I knew it was just a matter of time for this kid because he has an unbelievable will," Payton said. "And now that Tiger is suffering, we need somebody else to pick up the torch. Tim is proving that you don't have to be a prodigy like Tiger. He's proving that if you work at it and never give up, great things can happen to you in this game whether you're white or black.'