In Timothy O'Neal, Shippen finds perfect inaugural winner; he's in Rocket Mortgage Classic

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Timothy O'Neal turned professional in 1997, and has played in seven tournaments on the PGA Tour. He's missed the cut seven times.

But, at 48, he continues to search for opportunities — and this week at Detroit Golf Club, he took advantage of a big one, winning the inaugural John Shippen to earn a spot in the field for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Timothy O'Neal celebrates on the 18th green after winning The John Shippen on Monday at the Detroit Golf Club.

The tournament, named after the nation's first Black golfer, was founded in America's Blackest city as a way to promote diversity, specifically breaking barriers and creating chances for the top Black professional and amateur golfers.

Given O'Neal's back story, he might just be the perfect first champion.

"I guess so," he said with a big grin, shortly after walking off the 18th green on a muggy Monday afternoon. "I've been doing this for a long time, and for me, at 48, still being able to compete and being able to play means a lot to me.

"Hopefully it's gonna inspire guys not to quit, and keep grinding."

O'Neal, of Savanna, Georgia, shot an opening-round 71 to get into contention, then fired a 3-under 68 in the final round — rebounding from a sluggish start to earn a two-shot victory over Cincinnati's Kevin Hall.

The pivotal stretch came in the middle of the back nine. O'Neal spun a ball off the green and into the water at the par-5 14th for a bogey. He made par at the par-3 15th, then at the par-4 16, Hall nearly holed his approach from the fairway and had a tap-in birdie.

Knowing Hall might be his closest competitor, O'Neal followed that with a 9-iron to 8 feet, and he made the birdie on top of Hall's.

O'Neal then birdied the par-5 17th to give him breathing room heading to the clubhouse.

At 48, O'Neal isn't quite the oldest in the field — Michigan PGA section champion Jeff Roth is 63; Phil MIckelson and K.J. Choi are 51 — and, outside of a few gray whiskers to his goatee, he appears much younger than his age. He turns 49 in August.

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This will mark O'Neal's first PGA Tour appearance since 2019, when he received the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption to play in the Genesis Open in Los Angeles (Flint's Willie Mack III received that this year). Before that, he played in the U.S. Open in 2015.

Like the Shippen, the Sifford exemption is among the most visible initiatives on the PGA Tour designed to create more diversity. O'Neal hopes more of that is to come.

"It's a start," he said. "Hopefully more tournaments will start doing something similar. It'd be nice. It's a step in the right direction. We're not there yet."

In recent years, O'Neal, a Jackson State alum, mostly played the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, where he's won multiple times over the years, and this year has made nine of 13 cuts.

Among the locals in the field, Joseph Hooks (Wayne State) tied for 12th, Troy Taylor (Michigan State) tied for 14th and Andrew Walker (Michigan State) tied for 16th.

The women's side of the Shippen field was won by Flint native Shasta Averyardt and South Carolina alum Anita Uwadia, who earned the exemption into next month's LPGA Tour team tournament in Midland, the Great Lakes Bay Invitational.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984