Buffalo News

Lifelong Dream Swings O'Neill To Senior Tour

Jamestown's Dan O'Neill always had it in his head that he wanted to play the PGA Senior Tour, which is kind of like deciding you want to win the lottery.

More than 450 players take a shot at qualifying every year. Eighty-one make it to the final stage. The top eight receive fully exempt status, enabling them to play most every event. The next eight are conditionally exempt and drawn into fields when openings exist. The majority of spots are reserved for players who excelled on the PGA Tour.

There are no developmental circuits attached to the Seniors Tour, no Buy.Com or Hooters loops where a player can carve out a living and hone his game under comparable tournament conditions. A Senior golfer, 50 or older, either earns his card or ponders whether to subject himself to the whole excruciating process again the next year.

"You're either in or you're out on the Senior Tour," said Ed Morgante, the head pro at Conewango Country Club in Warren, Pa. "There's no middle ground. Without being an exempt player on the Senior Tour, it's literally impossible to go out and make a living or weekly check because it's too hard to qualify (for individual tournaments)."

O'Neill, 50, was acutely aware in mid-November that the coveted tour card was within his reach while, simultaneously, defying his grasp. He had advanced past the initial qualifying. He was 31st after the second of four rounds in the final stage, well-positioned to make a move or well-positioned to backtrack into oblivion.

O'Neill and Morgante, his longtime friend and, for this endeavor, entrusted caddy, retired to the practice range. Something was missing. Or, more accurately, an unwanted force was exerting its presence.

"I knew one of the problems I was dealing with was physical tension -- the contractions of the wrong muscles at the wrong time -- as opposed to emotional tension," O'Neill said. "There are ways to deal with that."

O'Neill drew from the pages of "The Inner Game of Golf," a book that had influenced him greatly over the years. A sense of freedom returned to his swing. The muscular tension dissipated.

"He found something," Morgante said. "We could both see it."

The Champions Course at the PGA of Southern California Golf Club in Calimesa is far more challenging than the average Senior Tour track. Nobody shot in the 60s during the first two rounds. O'Neill kicked off his third round with a birdie. Then another. And another. He kept right on going until he had played six straight holes under par and advanced to the top of the leaderboard.

"It seemed easy," O'Neill said. "I would never be one to tell you it is easy; it's not easy. But it seemed easy."

O'Neill shot 6-under-par 66. He came back the next day with a 69, playing with such command that Morgante said, "I'll tell you, 69 was the worst score he could have shot that day."

O'Neill placed in a tie for third at 8-under-par 280, four strokes behind the winner, former PGA Tour player Howard Twitty. He earned $17,250, which was a nice bonus because all he really wanted was his card. He'll make his first appearance as a fully exempt member Jan. 29 in the Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne, Fla.

"It means the world to him," Morgante said. "This gives him an opportunity to start an entirely new career and make a life out of it. He's got the game and the heart to do it. There's no question about that."

O'Neill's arrival as a full-fledged Senior Tour member culminates a lifetime in the game. He started playing at age 9 under the guidance of his father, who was part-owner of Maplehurst Country Club in Jamestown. He ranked among Western New York's more accomplished players by his midteens, winning the Buffalo District at Wanakah in 1967 and at South Shore two years later.

O'Neill went on to play at Penn State and, while there, qualified for the 1972 U.S.

Open at Pebble Beach. He made the cut by playing the last four holes of the second round even-par and finished second among amateurs.

The PGA Tour of the mid-1970s was a tough place to make a living. There were only 60 full exemptions. The other players competed Monday for the remaining 70 or 80 spots in the field. The purses were a pittance by today's standards.

"Back then," O'Neill said, "it was almost impossible."

O'Neill banged around the PGA Tour in '75 and '76 before seeking out steadier compensation. He spent five years as the head pro at a course in Central Pennsylvania. He became the golf consultant for a company that manufactured robotic carts. He served eight years as the head pro at Moon Brook Country Club in Jamestown and was among the original investors in the golf dome constructed at South Shore. Three years ago, he opened his own driving range, Creekside Family Golf World, in Jamestown.

"It came together when I got the range," O'Neill said. "I had time to work on my game more. I got a little more freedom, started to play a little better."

Last year, he won 11 events on the Western New York PGA circuit.

"I felt my game was getting better with maturity," O'Neill said.

O'Neill will head to Florida following the holidays, continuing to tune his swing for the Senior Tour. What the qualifier taught him is that he has all the ability he needs to compete and contend.

"I'm really looking forward to it," O'Neill said. "To me, I can't feel much more positive after playing that way under those conditions."

"We talked to some of the tour caddies and there's not one of them who wouldn't want his bag," Morgante said. "He can start thinking about winning. And he's not afraid to win."

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