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For Tim O’Neal and Black Golfers, Motown, Rocket Mortgage Classic Sing Loud With Opportunities

Tim O’Neal, Shasta Averyhardt, Anita Uwada earn PGA Tour, LPGA Starts with victories at the first John Shippen National Invitational in Detroit.

Motown Records has long been associated with rhythm and blues music’s confluence with popular American music in early 1960s Detroit. A similar vibe can be interpreted for the city’s golf history, from boxer Joe Louis’s public devotion to integrating golf during the early 1950s all the way up to this week when the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic takes place at the Detroit Golf Club.

In a city with the largest percentage of Black people in the United States, according to U.S. Census data, diversity and inclusion have been focal points of the tournament since its creation in 2019. That has been evident already this week and will be even more in view when the third playing begins on Thursday.

This effort began on Sunday with the John Shippen National Invitational, a new tournament named after the 1896 U.S. Open participant and first Black man to play in a professional event in America. A sports business summit for high school and college students was also held virtually to encourage minorities interested in sports industry jobs. All Shippen invitees had their transportation, accommodations and entry fees covered, which was a unique offering. Also, the tournament has a multi-year Changing the Course initiative to end the digital divide in Detroit, a city ranked as one of the least connected cities in the nation.

Monday’s men’s winner, Tim O’Neal, earned a place in the Rocket Mortgage Classic by shooting 71-68, the final round coming on the Detroit Golf Club’s North Course, the site of this week’s PGA Tour event. The women’s winners in a team competition were Shasta Averyhardt, a Flint, Mich., native, and Nigeria’s Anita Uwada, who qualified for the LPGA’s Great Lakes Bay Invitational team tournament July 14-17 in Midland, Mich.

The path to Detroit was meaningful for all three qualifiers.

O’Neal turned pro after a stellar college career at Jackson (Miss.) State in 1997, the same year that Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament. The Savannah, Ga., native was at one time sponsored by actor Will Smith and has been on the verge of making it on the PGA Tour but repeatedly fell just short. The closest call came when he made triple bogey on the final hole of the 2000 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament to miss earning his PGA Tour card by two strokes. 

He has toiled on various secondary tours around the world, with three Latinoamerica Tour victories as hopeful highlights, but never relented despite having a wife and two children, now ages 20 and 15, at home in Savannah and often co-travelers by car across the country. This will be his eighth career PGA Tour start, the previous seven resulting in missed cuts.

Tim O'Neal won the John Shippen National Invitational on Monday to earn a spot in this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic on the PGA Tour.

Tim O'Neal won the John Shippen National Invitational on Monday to earn a spot in this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic on the PGA Tour.

"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,” said O’Neal, who turns 49 on Aug. 3. “Hopefully it's gonna inspire guys not to quit, and keep grinding."

He will join a larger than usual cast of Black golfers in the Rocket Mortgage event, led by Cameron Champ, Harold Varner III, Joseph Bramlett and Flint’s Willie Mack III, a sponsor exemption.

“Especially when I turned pro, I didn’t know (O’Neal) well, but now we talk all the time, text,” Mack, 32, said. “I'm excited that he won and got in here. He's a little older than most of us, but he still has the game. I'm glad we both got an opportunity this week and hopefully we both play well.”

Averyhardt, 35, had her LPGA card in the early 2010s but lost it due to multiple injuries and started a career in the financial sector. But the golf bug bit back and after a few years she decided to return to chasing her golf dream again. The LPGA start in two weeks will mark her first in eight years. She was featured Tuesday in a charity fundraiser alongside Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, reigning PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson and defending Rocket Mortgage Classic champion Bryson DeChambeau.

“I'm appreciative of the opportunity to go back to playing again,” Averyhardt said. “Took my time off, did a lot of growing, and to have the opportunity and the support behind me this time, it means a lot, so I'm going to take advantage of it and do the best I can.”

Uwadia grew up in Nigeria, immigrated to the United States to attend high school in Hilton Head, S.C., and played collegiately at the University of South Carolina through 2020, earning multiple all-SEC academic honors en route to degrees in Business and Management. The Great Lakes Bay event will be the 23-year-old’s first LPGA start.

Mack pointed toward Detroit native Dan Gilbert, the CEO of Quicken Loans — the parent company of tournament sponsor Rocket Mortgage — and owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers as a guiding force in the Detroit and golf revitalization.

“Dan Gilbert has definitely put in a lot of money and time into the Detroit area, and it's something a lot of people don't do,” Mack said. “They usually say they're going to do something and usually don't, but he definitely says something and definitely stands behind that.”

For O’Neal, it’s another chance to move forward.

“It's a start," O’Neal 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.”

Shasta Averyhardt (left) and Anita Uwada teamed to win the women's division of the John Shippen National Invitational on Monday and a spot in a LPGA team event in two weeks.

Shasta Averyhardt (left) and Anita Uwada teamed to win the women's division of the John Shippen National Invitational on Monday and a spot in a LPGA team event in two weeks.