Flawless 64 Delivers Day One Lead for Josh O’Neal at eGolf Gateway Tour’s River Hills Classic

The par-5 12th at River Hills C.C.

By Stewart Moore

Lake Wylie, S.C. – Josh O’Neal of Greer, S.C. entered this week’s seventh annual River Hills Classic with six starts and six missed cuts to his name in his rookie season on the eGolf Gateway Tour.

The former North Greenville (S.C.) University standout turned professional in January of this year after a back injury forced him to the sidelines for the second half of the 2014 season, so a sluggish start was to be expected after such a lengthy hiatus.

Healthy and confident following a recent swing change, O’Neal blistered a normally-demanding River Hills Country Club course to the tune of one eagle and six birdies on Wednesday morning, good for a first-round 64 and a two-shot lead through 18 holes of the 72-hole event.

During Tuesday’s practice round on the 1969 Willard Byrd design, O’Neal found himself as a single amidst a sea of foursomes, and opted to skip the back nine after waiting on a number of shots.

That bit of bravado on one of the tour’s most difficult venues failed to slow him in the opening round after a massive tee shot on the par-5 10th to start his day gave way to a 9-iron approach to 3 feet which set up a kick-in eagle.

“That was nice,” he said. “I hit a good drive on 10 and just hit a perfect second shot in there. It’s always good to start a round off like that.”

Birdies on 15, 16 and 17 – one of the toughest three-hole stretches at River Hills – moved the 23-year-old to 5-under for his round through eight holes, with a bit of luck along the way.

On the downhill par-3 17th, O’Neal laced a 6-iron from 209 yards to 40 feet, and watched sheepishly as the unlikely birdie try found the bottom of the hole.

Josh O'NealJosh O'Neal

“I was just trying to lag it down, but it hit the back the cup and went in,” said O’Neal. “That’s just one of those where you chuckle and laugh about it.”

O’Neal, who entered the week without a round in the 60’s this year, birdied Nos. 2 and 4 to vault to 7-under on the day with five holes to play.

On the par-4 ninth, his last, the former NCCAA “All America” selection hit a mediocre tee shot, but followed it up with a 9-iron to 20 feet and one last birdie bomb to round out a career-best 64.

“I didn’t hit the ball all that great today, but I kept it below the hole, which is pretty key on this course,” said O’Neal, who finished the round with just 24 putts. “Yesterday I didn’t make many putts, but today I obviously did.”

The 64 was three shots shy of the course record of 61, posted by current PGA TOUR member Brice Garnett in the 2011 River Hills Classic.

The 8-under-par effort is, however, the lowest round posted since the club converted to Bermuda grass greens two years ago – a move that put forth a firm and fast putting surface.

“I didn’t make many mistakes out there. With greens as firm and fast as they are, it’s going to be hard to make birdies from above the hole,” said O’Neal, citing the club’s classic back-to-front sloped surfaces. “It made me think a lot harder on each shot.”

O’Neal finished his college career in the spring of 2014 before winning the Greenville County Amateur that July to help springboard what should have been an immediate leap to the pro ranks.

But a herniated disc in his back and follow-up surgery left him on the shelf for the better part of six months, unable to even pick up a club to prepare for his professional debut on the eGolf Gateway Tour.

Ryan NelsonRyan Nelson

That time away from the game gave way to the aforementioned missed cuts, but recent work with teacher Kevin Schreel put O’Neal back into form, trending towards a trustworthy fade and away from a career-long draw.

“I was kind of fed up with my shot shape, and I wanted to change that,” he said. “Today was the first round where I put that into play and it worked out well – hopefully I can build on it tomorrow. If I can keep it up, we’ll see what happens.”

2014 leading money winner Ryan Nelson of Charleston, S.C. and 2013 River Hills Classic champion Bruce Woodall of Yanceyville, N.C. are tied for second, two shots back of O’Neal after rounds of 6-under 66.

Nelson, who has six wins on tour since the summer of 2011, birdied eight of his first 15 holes to race out to a 6-under-par start, but parred Nos. 7 through 9 (his 16 through 18) to wrap up a 66 in the day’s second threesome off of No. 10.

The 37-year-old married father of two finished runner-up to Ethan Tracy at last year’s River Hills Classic, posting a 10-under-par total to finish two shots shy of the former Western Amateur champion, who birdied five of his final eight holes to earn his second win of the year.

Nelson’s 2015 campaign has been winless, yet consistent, with 10 top-25s in 11 starts, including three top-5 finishes.

Woodall, a former University of Virginia standout making just his second start of the year since notching a T5 at the season-opening Palmetto Hall Championship presented by Sonesta HHI.

A three-time eGolf Gateway Tour winner, Woodall spent the majority of his summer on PGA TOUR Canada, where he has made just one cut in five starts – a T66 at the Syncrude Boreal Open in June.

The 26-year-old turned in 2-under 34 on Wednesday before closing late in flawless fashion with birdies on 10, 13, 16 and 18 to finish off his 66 in the opening round.

Woodall’s 2013 River Hills win was his third of the season, giving way to a second-place finish on the money list after a breakout year which included seven top-5s.

Kevin McLister of Charlotte, N.C. is in solo-third place after a 5-under 67.

Bruce WoodallBruce Woodall

McLister, who hails from Leesburg, Va. originally, opened his week with bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11 (his first and second holes) before righting the ship with seven birdies over his final 16 holes for a 5-under-par effort.

The 26-year-old, who has competed on tour since 2011, has had an up-and-down 2015 season, making just five cuts in 13 starts, but notching career win No. 1 at the Mimosa Hills Open in June.

At Mimosa Hills, McLister rode rounds of 66-66-62-66—260 to a 20-under-par total, good for a two-shot victory over recent Verdict Ridge Open champion Michael Cromie.

Thomas Bass of Wilmington, N.C., T.J. Howe of Osceola, Pa. and Paul Apyan of Cleveland, Tenn. are tied for fifth after matching rounds of 4-under 68 on day one.

The second round of the River Hills Classic will begin at 8:00 AM on Thursday morning, with players competing in threesomes off of Nos. 1 and 10 tees. Following the completion of 36 holes, the field will be cut to the low 35 percent and ties for the final two rounds of play. The tournament is open to the public and free of charge.