For two black golfers, path to PGA tour is rocky

Tiger WoodTim O’Neal watched carefully, head down, as his pitch from just off the green rolled perfectly into the cup on the ninth green at Tradition National Golf Course last month.

“T-O. That was great,” cheered playing partner David Robinson at the eGolf Professional Tour event.

O’Neal smiled back, a nice shot on a good day. There just haven’t been enough of those moments for O’Neal to reach his ultimate goal.

Tiger Woods’ phenomenal rise and accomplishments seemed destined to lead to a wave of talented minority golfers, a new generation topping leaderboards throughout the country.

O’Neal and Stephen Reed, two African-American pros, can tell you how tough it is just to break onto the PGA Tour.

“I’m the youngest out of probably about five or six good minority players in this country,” the 27-year-old Reed said after playing a group behind O’Neal at Tradition National. “And they’re all struggling.”

Woods is now the only player with African-American heritage on the PGA Tour.

Meanwhile, as with many players of all racial backgrounds, O’Neal and Reed have struggled with the need for sponsorships, coaching and money as they fight to earn a tour card. In a nation where whites’ household median income is $21,000 more than blacks, both O’Neal and Reed think just keeping financially afloat is a major barrier to minority players.

“You have guys that can play at this level,” O’Neal says. “But they just don’t have the finances to go do it.”

O’Neal played college golf at Jackson State and turned pro in 1997, the same year Woods won his first Masters’ title.

O’Neal secured backing from celebrities like actor Will Smith and Wade Houston, the former University of Tennessee basketball coach and father of NBA star Allan Houston.

He appeared ready to deliver on his promise in 2000 at PGA Tour Qualifying School. However, on the final hole of the event’s final round, O’Neal didn’t realize he only needed a bogey to gain his card, took unnecessary risks and made double to miss the tour by a stroke.

“It was kind of a screw up on my part,” he said.

O’Neal had a chance at redemption four years later, needing birdie on the last hole to qualify. He knocked his approach within 8 feet, yet missed the putt to get him in.

He played on the Nationwide Tour the past four seasons, his best showing coming in 2006 when he had five top 10 finishes and earned $150,250.

O’Neal slipped off the Nationwide after last year. He tried for exempt status on the Asian Tour earlier this year, finishing tied for 41st. Only the top 40 qualifiers gained cards.

So he keeps teeing it up wherever he can. The week after playing in South Carolina, O’Neal tied for 50th at the SAIL Open in New Dehli, India.

“It’s one of those things that I’ve always done,” O’Neal said. “I feel like that I just so happen to be a minority trying to chase a dream like everyone else.”

Reed is the son of Houston golf pro Paul Reed and took to the game early on.

He won a Texas state title in high school, and in 2000 became the first black golfer since Woods to win an American Junior Golf Association event. He excelled at Texas A&M, and graduated ready to take on the PGA Tour.

Reed found that unless he won immediately, or had a bank vault full of money, his progress was going to take time. “It’s just really easy for people to renege on things,” Reed said.

He, like O’Neal, has played a variety of tours on several continents looking to break through.

O’Neal hasn’t had a sponsor since 2002 and must provide for wife Melody and their two children. He thinks more and more about how much longer he can pace courses, trying to string together enough well-struck shots to break through. His near misses at Q-school push him forward. “Those are tough pills to swallow,” he said.

Reed said he’s got about $80,000 for the year. With equipment, travel, housing and lessons “that’s still not enough,” he said.

Some of Reed’s focus goes to launching an upcoming venture called Destiny Golf. The goal, he said, is pairing corporate support with rising young golfers who’ll need mini-tour experience before embarking on the PGA Tour.

“We’re not running a short quarter race,” Reed said. “We’re running a marathon.”

It’s something few came to see at Tradition National. Neither O’Neal nor Reed made the 36-hole cut, so they were not around for a chance at the Open’s $30,000 first prize.

Despite his disappointment, Reed hasn’t surrendered his dreams.

“I don’t like missing cuts. I hate it,” he said. “At the same time, if I have something that’s going to last past my golf days, I’m writing my own chapter either way.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.