The 28-year-old Savannah, Ga., native tied the Circle C Ranch course record 7-under 65 for a one-shot cushion over Tour rookie David Hearn (Brantford, Ontario). Rob McMillan of Winnipeg is two strokes back.
With the threat of a suspension of play due to darkness looming, first-round action wrapped up just as dusk turned to nightfall.
After gaining a Golf Channel exemption into all six U.S.-based Tour events to be televised on the station this spring, ONeal, a member on the Buy.Com Tour last year, had nine bogeys against two bogeys and needed just 26 putts Thursday.
It always seems easy when you are making putts, said the former NCAA All-American at Jackson State University. Anyone that plays this game will tell you that is everything. I made the putts when I needed to, and that helps.
ONeal played the par-5 holes at 4-under Thursday, hitting 13 of 18 greens in regulation. Coming off a tie for 17th spot at last weeks Texas Classic, ONeal was cautiously optimistic with his start, but stressed there is still plenty of golf remaining.
There are a lot of good players out here and you are going to have to take it low every day,' he said. 'Ive still got three rounds to go, and I think it is going to take 4 or 5-under each day.
At last seasons Bayer Championship, Hearn, playing as an amateur, finished tied for fifth before earning his Tour card at Fall Qualifying School.
I think that (Bayer) showing did a lot for me, it showed I can compete with these guys, said the 22-year-old, a member of the 2001 Canadian Four Nations Cup team. As good as some of these guys are, I dont tend to get intimidated. I feel I have the ability to play with these guys and I am going to do my best to prove it. Im going to stick to my game plan, try to take advantage of the par-5s and see where I am (after Friday).
McMillan, a two-time Canadian Tour winner and the 1996 Canadian Amateur champion, hasnt played in awhile, but feels his game is starting to come around.
I feel competitively rusty, and my decision-making isnt where it usually is, reasoned the 26-year-old. Last week, I made a lot of good shots and didnt get the results, so sometimes you have to get a little lucky.
Full-field scores from the Texas Challenge