One man's long journey to the PGA Tour

By John FeinsteinOctober 31, 2012, 2:02 pm

All George McNeill wanted to do was get in his car and point it in the direction of home. There really was nothing else to do. His career as a golfer, as best he could see, was over. He had just bogeyed the 18th hole at the TPC of Tampa Bay and was virtually certain he had missed making it out of the first stage of PGA Tour Q-School – again. He had just turned 30 a couple of weeks earlier and he was now 0-for-8 in his attempts to get through Q-School in order to realize his dream of playing on the PGA Tour.

A few minutes earlier, he had stood on the 18th tee convinced that a par would be good enough to get him to second stage. A birdie would be a bonus, a par probably good enough.

“I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “I missed the green by a mile with my second shot and that was pretty much it.”

He actually hit a reasonably good third shot, to about 12 feet, but his putt died an inch to the right. That inch was the difference between advancing and not advancing and he knew it the instant he missed – not because someone told him but because players have an instinct at Q-School for what the ‘number’ is to advance. McNeill had finished four rounds at 2 under par. He was certain the number was going to be 3.

“I signed my card and walked over to the (score) board where everyone was standing around watching the numbers go up. I really never actually stopped walking. I just did a quick count in my head and, even though all the scores weren’t up yet, I knew I was out. I could have waited around to be sure, but I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

“I just went straight to my car. My mind was racing as soon as I walked off the green. All I could think was, ‘this is it. You’re 30. You just missed first stage. This isn’t working. You have to go find a job.’ It was breaking my heart but I was being realistic. It took me about 3 minutes to go from signing my card to being in my car. In that 3 minutes I decided I was done.”

McNeill had been an All-American at Florida State, a lean, long-hitting free swinger who believed his future was on the PGA Tour. Once, in 2002, he had made Q-School finals. That got him a job on what was then the Nationwide Tour in 2003. “I played horribly all year,” (115th on the money list) he said. “I had qualified for the (U.S.) Open in ’02 and that gave me some confidence going into Q-School but by the end of ’03 I felt pretty much back to Square 1.”

And then, two years later, came the late meltdown in Tampa. “I honestly don’t remember the next couple of days,” he said, laughing. “I remember driving home, getting a case of beer and trying to drink myself into oblivion. I think I succeeded. About a week later, nothing had changed: I needed a job.”

A friend of his told him that Bill Harley, the head pro at Shadow Wood Country Club, which wasn’t far from where McNeill was living in Ft. Myers, Fla., was looking for an assistant pro. Since the club was corporate-owned, McNeill had to go through all the formalities of a job interview. The process was unsettling.

“I had never actually interviewed for a real adult job,” he said. “I guess in high school I went and talked to the pro at the club where I jockeyed carts, but that had been it. I had to put on a suit and do the whole thing. It definitely felt a little bit strange.”

He got the job and, a few months later when Harley got a job at a club called The Forest, McNeill went with him. It was a little closer to his home and the job paid better – about $27,000 a year.

“I did what I had to do every day,” McNeill said. “But I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand being in the shop or doing all the things a club pro does. I respect those guys a lot because they put up with a lot. But I knew it wasn’t for me. After about six months I walked into Bill and I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore. I have to get outside and try to play golf again.’

“He just looked at me and said, ‘what took you so long? Get out of here and get to work.’”

McNeill did with a different attitude. He didn’t just want to play golf successfully he needed to play successfully. He’d seen the alternative and it didn’t thrill him. Like any long hitter, he often spent a lot of his practice time with the driver in his hands. Now, even when he didn’t much feel like it, he spent time grinding on his short game.

He went back to first stage in the fall and won. “It doesn’t matter where you finish at first or second stage as long as you’re inside the number,” he said. “But the first day I shot 1 over on a day the wind was howling and I knew I’d played well. The next three days the wind laid down and I shot 18 under. That gave me some confidence.”

Second stage, which players agree carries the most pressure because a job playing golf someplace is at stake, was more of the same – lots of birdies and a breeze into the finals. He felt like a different player and a different person – especially when he arrived for the finals at PGA West.

“I was on the range and there were so many guys who had been on Tour talking about how awful it was to be back at Q-School,” he said. “I thought it was GREAT to be at Q-School. I was so happy to be there. My thinking was that I already had something because I’d made it through second stage. The only question was how good my something was going to be. I was a long way from the year before when I had absolutely nothing.”

The something turned out to be everything possible. McNeill won going away, finishing first by five shots.

“Before the last round I figured out that I could shoot 80 and still make it,” he said. “That probably wasn’t a good thought. I walked off the first tee and I realized I was shaking with nerves. I took a deep breath and got myself under control. Then I shot 30 on the front nine.” He laughed. “I figured I could throw it around on the back nine and shoot 50 so I was okay at that point.”

He’s been mostly okay since. During his rookie year he won in Las Vegas making him one of two rookies (Brandt Snedeker was the other) to win on Tour in 2007. He won in Puerto Rico earlier this year for his second Tour win.

“The first win is so big because of everything that comes with it,” he said. “You’re exempt for two years, you control your schedule, you get to play with the big names. I still remember after I won having guys I didn’t even think knew who I was come up and congratulate me – Davis Love, David Toms, Vijay (Singh). That was very cool.

“It took me a while to win again, but I finally did it. I worried at times I’d be one of those guys who won once and was never heard from again. So winning again was a good feeling, too.”

The only downer about the two wins is that they were both events that didn’t bring an automatic Masters invitation. “Obviously I’d love to play The Masters,” he said. “Or maybe I’ll set the record for most wins without getting into the Masters. Either way, I can’t complain about where I am.”

It has been seven years now since he drove away from the TPC of Tampa in search of oblivion. He has come a long way since.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.