by Jim Riggs
November 9, 2002
O’Neill Hopes To Play Less And Enjoy It More
Last year the Jamestown native qualified for the Senior PGA Tour for the first time by finishing seventh in the first leg of qualifying in which the top 15 moved on to the final qualifier. At the finals, only the top eight earned full exemption for the Senior PGA Tour and O’Neill qualified with ease by finishing tied for third.
In his first year on the tour, O’Neill fared well with two top 10 finishes in 29 events played and he earned $216,311. However, those earnings place him 68th on the money list and only the top 31 are exempt for 2003. Everyone else has to qualify again, but those golfers positioned 32 through 75, which includes O’Neill, move right into the qualifying finals and get to skip the first leg.
That’s an advantage for O’Neill, who said that compared to last year, "There’s less concern.”
That’s not only because he’s been there once and has to play in one less qualifying round, but also because qualifying for anything in golf has never been a concern for O’Neill.
“I just always have been a good qualifier,” he said. “I can shoot 67 when there’s no money (involved).”
He proved that again back in August when he had to qualify to play in two Senior Tour tournaments and again succeeded. In the first he was the medalist with a 67. In the other he shot a 69 to tie with four others for two qualifying spots and he made it again by succeeding in the playoff.
If O’Neill doesn’t earn full exemption by finishing in the top eight at the qualifying school, he could earn a conditional exemption, which would allow him to play in quite a few events, by finishing in the ninth to 16th spots.
If he misses out on the top 16, O’Neill will try to qualify every Monday for that week’s tournament, which he did in the summer of 2001.
But before looking ahead to 2003, there was a lot to look back on his first year on the Senior PGA Tour and O’Neill summed it up with, “It was a learning experience.”
And one thing he learned is, “The travel is excessive.”
“I never played so much golf,” said O’Neill, who played on the PGA tour for 1 ½ years in the mid 1970s.
O’Neill noted that in one stretch for 15 to 16 weeks he played every day. That’s because after finishing the final round of a tournament on a Sunday, he would hop on a plane to reach the next event where he would play in a pro-am on Monday, mainly because he would be paid for participating. On Tuesday O’Neill would play a practice round on the tournament course and then Wednesday and Thursday there were mandatory pro-ams to play in before the 54-hole, no-cut tournament began on Friday.
In addition to all the golf on the course, O’Neill also practiced and said, “I did it way too much.”
He noted that he had never practiced much during his career, but did on the Senior PGA Tour because “It’s (practice facilities) so accessible.”
Prior to joining the Senior PGA Tour, O’Neill never played more than three times a week. He noted that in 2000 when playing in Monday pro-ams in the Western New York section of the PGA, he won 11 times and that was often the only round he played all week. And last fall he didn’t play much before successfully qualifying for the Senior PGA Tour.
“I’ve played good when I didn’t play (a lot),” O’Neill said. “It doesn’t seem like that should work.”
But suddenly playing every day non-stop, plus practicing in between, took its toll.
“There were times I didn’t feel like going out and playing,” O’Neill said about the physical beating he was taking which led to a compressed disk in his neck.
One of the trainers in the fitness trailer that travels with the tour told him, “You’re using muscles you never used.”
But that will change this year.
“I won’t play in every tournament, even if I’m exempt,” O’Neill said. “I’m not made that way.”
His plan is to play in about 20 to 25 tournaments and to take a week off after every four or five. And it’s a perfect year to do it because the tour is planning to cut back its schedule in 2003.
Senior Tour veteran Don Pooley eventually did the same thing and told O’Neill, “It took me six years to figure it out.”
Pooley also noted that by playing less you might finish in the top 10 a few times more and earn around $50,000 each instead of earning almost that same total by playing every week and picking up $2,000 or $3,000 by finishing near the bottom of the no-cut fields.
“I would feel a lot better doing that,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill had two top-10 finishes this year – a tie for ninth worth $39,000 and a tie for 10th worth $42,500. Overall for his rookie year on the Senior PGA Tour, he said, “I didn’t do as well as I thought I would do, but it was harder than I thought it would be. I expected to win more (money).”
However, earning $216,311 wasn’t too bad and he admits when looking at the purses, “It does boggle my mind.”
He noted that he missed being in the 31st and final exempt spot on the money list by $500,000.
He easily covered his expenses, which he figures run about $85,000 to $100,000.
“Expense-wise, it’s not too much,” he said, noting that a lot of meals are provided at the courses along with courtesy cars, and hotel rooms and airlines flights have PGA rates. “The biggest expense out there is your caddy.”
His caddy, when Conewango Valley pro Ed Morgante wasn’t on his bag for the first four tournaments, was $750 a week plus 5 percent of O’Neill’s earnings for the week.
“Another big surprise was how tough our golf courses were,” O’Neill said. “We never played a course under 7,000 yards.”
That’s quite a change from a few years ago when newcomers from the PGA Tour commented about how much easier the Senior PGA Tour courses were. O’Neill noted that one caddy who works on both tours told him, “Your courses are as tough and might be tougher.”
When asked a part of his game that requires improvement, O’Neill said, “If I had to pick something I was weak with, it was the irons – 9 to 4.”
But he noted, “I drove the ball really good.”
And the change to a Great Big Bertha II has added 25 yards to his drives.
“I went through a lot of equipment changes,” O’Neill said. “Now I’m totally Callaway.”
He also wants to work on his course management and he took some more advice from another tour veteran, Tom Wargo, who told him, “You have to learn how to win money first.”
And O’Neill’s notes, “I have to learn to think more tightly.”
But he can’t play tightly and another tour player, Allen Doyle, had an answer for that.
“An 8-iron is an 8-iron,” he told O’Neill, meaning if you cut out all the distractions, hitting a shot on the Senior Tour is the same as hitting it on your home course while playing with your buddies.
Speaking of buddies, Morgante will again caddy for O’Neill at the final leg of qualifying later this month on the Rolling Oaks Course at World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, Fla. And he’ll also be with O’Neill through the opening weeks of the newly named Champions Tour when it starts up next year.
After that, O’Neill hopes to hook up again with his regular tour caddy, who should be working less because O’Neill hopes to play less and enjoy it more.