O’Neal Varsity Boys Golf team won their conference championship this week and seventh-grade student Jack Halloran won medalist honors, all-conference, and Conference Player of the Year. The Falcons have been fortunate to carry strong golf teams throughout its history. In all fairness, when world-renowned golf courses are a stone’s throw away, a school within the vicinity of the capital of golf in the United States oftentimes can produce a young stellar golf team.
In the Beginning
It all began in the spring of 1974, only 2 1/2 years after O’Neal opened its doors. O’Neal was fortunate to have Ed Millington ‘81 as a Falcon. Prior to the establishment of a school golf team, Ed was a successful junior golfer who traveled the nation for tournaments. He went on to play for Georgia Tech after graduating from O’Neal in 1981. Only 10 years old at the time, Millington reflects on the School’s beginning with golf:
“I hold the cherished privilege of being part of the foundation of the Wallace O’Neal Day School golf program almost 50 years ago. The team launched its inaugural season in the spring of 1974 under coach and math teacher Sandy Rae. Our first match was against Durham Academy at the nearby clover-laden Shillelagh Golf Course. It was a slaughter.
Over the next few years, the team built a core of regular members including Bucky Adams, Kirk Bell, Robbie Kramer, Chris Buie and me while coach Jim ‘Jimbo’ Miles got us to the matches on time. As the 1970s rolled to a close, the team gained more talent with the addition of Mike Greene and Jeff Burgess. Most fortunate to call the Pinehurst Country Club our home, we grew together as a brotherhood. We tallied a respectable resume of match wins, as well as District and NC Independent Schools State Championships in 1979 and 1980. That summer of 1980, we ventured to New Haven, CT and found victory in the East Coast Independent Schools Golf Tournament at the Yale University Golf Course. We all celebrated a mountaintop experience of accomplishment.
With Bucky, Kirk and Mike having graduated at the end of that year, the 1981 season approached with uncertainty. Surprisingly however, we didn’t lose our stride as Robbie, Chris, Jeff, John Ferguson and I closed an undefeated season, topped off with the third State Championship for O’Neal in three consecutive years.
The fond memories of those times, friends, teammates and school-wide support abound. Our dedication and progress opened doors for each of us. They also set the broader stage for an extremely well-regarded program that has continued to draw exceptional talent, produce ongoing success, and solidify a winning tradition over these many years.”
Fast forward 10 years later to 1991. Mandy Kuhn Grimshaw graduated from O’Neal in 1991 and went to UNC-Chapel Hill for golf. Now as an O’Neal parent she comments:
“The biggest takeaway I have about O’Neal and golf is that all students are encouraged to play a sport each season starting in 6th grade. I decided to start playing golf in 6th grade and ended up pursuing golf in college. The team aspect made it fun even if you were not the star. It gave me an opportunity to grow and develop. Golf, in turn, opened many doors for me.”
The biggest accomplishment we had during my golfing years was winning the state championship in 1991. A couple of things are different from today: all independent schools were lumped together so we played against all-size schools and there was not a women’s and men’s team. The women would play on the men’s team from the same tees as the men.
Women today most likely cannot imagine competing in this way, but there was no other option as far as I was concerned. We did not think anything about it.”
The girls continued to compete with the guys for 15 more years together winning seven more state championships. In 2016, Director of Athletics James Franklin started a girls golf team with then-freshman Nicole Adam ’20 as the foundation of what has flourished since. Nicole plays on the UNC-Chapel Hill Women’s Golf Team.
“I think the best thing that I have ever contributed to O’Neal was helping Mr. Franklin make a Girls’ Golf Team. Throughout the 4 years I was on it, we always had an adventure every day and all became close like sisters. At O’Neal it is so cool that the divisions are connected. Through the golf team, I became friends with girls that I didn’t know well at first, but through our adventures, we became like sisters. Still to today even though I have moved onto college I still keep in touch with them and I am so proud of how much they have accomplished. The best memory our team had was winning the State Championship my senior year. And I hope going forward that these girls can win many state championships!”
Last fall the girls team placed runner up in the State Championship and Falcon sophomore Alex Lapple was the medalist.
The Age of Lamas, Mullet Shirts and Spaceships
The first decade for the turn of the century was all about having fun while performing well. Jack Ulrich ’06 and Michael McGowan ’09 shared much of the same memories. Jack went to Furman University to play golf and is a PGA Technician for PING. Michael went to UNC-Chapel Hill for golf and currently plays on the PGA Tour Latin America.
“I had the privilege of being a part of the O’Neal Golf Team for six seasons (2001-2006). O’Neal afforded me the opportunity to start being a part of the golf team as a small, shy, very much intimidated 7th grader. My first memories of golf practice involved me standing on the putting green at Talamore Golf Resort after school, watching and waiting as the older ‘Upper School’ kids drove down the main road to golf practice with all kinds of music blaring from their stereos. I felt out of place at first. Luckily, a few of the older guys, notably John Justice ‘03 and Blair Miller ’04, took me under their wing and helped me feel a part of the team. We had a lot of talent on that team and by the end of that 2001 season, it was becoming clear that we had something special brewing.
Side note: One of the unique parts of being able to call Talamore our home course was that, when it first opened, they would occasionally use Llamas as caddies. I do not believe that practice lasted very long; however, to this day they still have a pen of Llamas between the 13th green and 14th Tee box. Walking from green to tee, you couldn’t help passing right by them. Occasionally, if you managed to get a little too close, one of the Llamas would sometimes spit at you…..not your normal golf course experience.
At the start of the 2002 season, we returned most of the team from 2001 (Graham Cooper and Leighton Schwab had graduated). As a team, we knew we were good but didn’t know how good we could get. We had another solid season but ultimately came up short of our goal to play well in the State Championship. One of my particularly favorite memories of that season is from after day 1 of the State Championship. John McDougald, our head coach at the time, always had a way of keeping things relaxed and fun, even when I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled with how we were playing or how some of us teenagers would act before, during, or after a round. After that 1st round, when we had a rather poor performance, instead of giving us a pep-talk or putting pressure on us to come back and play better the next day, coach took the team to an Old Navy where we picked out the most hideous short sleeve button-downs you have ever seen. They were pretty plain in the front, mostly white with a small floral pattern on the front pocket, but the back of the shirt had a horrific and obnoxious jungle pattern on it. The contrast was so great that those shirts became known as the “Mullet Shirt” (business in the front, party in the back). Coach bought enough shirts for everyone, which became our team uniform for day 2. I think we were so distracted thinking about how ridiculous we looked that we all could go out and just play golf and have fun. Low and behold we played much better and ended up having a nice finish.
During our team meeting on the first day of practice for the 2003 season, the goal was clear. Winning the State Championship. Looking back, I think from that first day we all believed this was the season we were going to get it done. What that season turned into, was an absolute blast.
We played some very good golf as a team and we’re always rooting for and pushing each other to get better. When all was said and done, we pulled off the “Perfect Season”, winning each match we played, the Conference Tournament, and capped it off with a victory at the State Championship. I’ll never forget the pure joy of that final day of the State Championship, the thrill of having so many friends, family, students, faculty, and countless others rooting us on. That day will forever be one of the highlights of my life. The tradition began that night of the entire team going to Blair Miller’s parents’ house, where we all had our heads shaved in celebration of the win.
Moving to sophomore year in 2004, most of the familiar faces once again returned. We also added some young talent from the Middle School, notably, a young 7th grader with some serious game and cousin of Blair Miller, Michael McGowan. We experienced another season full of success, had an absolute blast again, but ultimately fell just short of our repeat State Championship goal. I was fortunate enough to make some wonderful friendships and looked up to the older guys on the team, most of whom were now seniors (Blair Miller, Jordan Hicks, Russ Hefner, and Eric Subin). We were a tight-knit group throughout the year, not just during the golf season. It was tough to say goodbye to those guys as they graduated.
Once junior year and the 2005 season began, I was now the ‘old guy’ on the team and moved into more of the ‘Mentor’ roll. It was important to me to maintain the close-knit / family feeling that I had enjoyed during the four previous seasons and hopefully set a good example for the young team that we had. That year, the friendship between Michael McGowan and me really took off and we quickly became best friends. It was never really a spoken thing, but I think we both understood and felt we were responsible for leading the team. Being the oldest guy on the team, I was the only one who had a driver’s license and there were many afternoons when I would pack my Pontiac Aztec, “The Spaceship” as it was known, full of golf clubs, backpacks, and the younger guys as we would leave school for golf practice. Those are some very fun memories to look back on and I enjoyed being the ‘big brother’ of the team. Although our team was now much younger, we had some young players with a ton of talent, and we were once again a formidable group.
O’Neal did not have a women’s golf team at the time, so we were also fortunate to play alongside Corrine Carr, as well as her sister Darlea. Each of them also had some serious games. They both always made the game look easier than it is and would routinely beat us. Coincidentally, Corrine and I both ended up committing to play College Golf at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Corrine later transferred to the University of South Carolina, where she continued to enjoy much success. Our team once again had a very successful season and were fortunate to again achieve our goal of winning the State Championship. Another trip to the Miller house, another celebration of shaved heads (excluding Corrine and her sister Darlea. However, in the spirit of the tradition, we did cut a small lock of their hair).
Senior year in 2006 was once again a fun and successful season. We had a new home course, Pinehurst #8, and a new coach, Jon Hazelwood, who had been an assistant for us at Talamore the previous year. Michael and I continued to develop a close friendship and the young talent of the team continued to develop. Casey Hefner, Bert Subin, Douglas Johnson, Mitchel Friesen, Lyman Woollens all were very good players and probably could have played college golf had they pursued that path. There are some particularly hilarious memories from that season, notably the final day of the State Championship and my final round of High School Golf. We did not win that season, but Michael McGowan took home the individual title as a freshman (something I had also accomplished my freshman year in 2003). It was a bittersweet moment as my high school golf career had come to a close, but I was also thrilled for Michael and knew that this was just the beginning of great success for him.
Once again John McDougald knew how to keep the moment light and literally picked me up on his shoulders on the 18th green at Mid-South Golf Club. Lyman Woollens and a few other teammates grabbed Michael at the same time and we both were lightly tossed into the lake adjacent to the 18th green. I will forever cherish the photo of that moment, both of us soaked, with huge smiles on our faces.
Although golf is primarily an individual sport, the experiences, friendships, and memories gained being a part of the O’Neal Falcon Golf Team helped shape who I am today. We were blessed as a group to be a very close-knit family, with some truly wonderful mentors, coaches, teachers, family, friends, schoolmates, and community all cheering us on. Most importantly, we cheered each other on and inspired each other to not only become better on the golf course, but hopefully to also grow and develop into good people. I loved every minute of it!”
Also a six-year O’Neal golfer, Michael McGowan ’09 remembers the 2006 State Tournament:
“After the first round I can’t recall where the team stood, but we were somewhere around the lead and I was in the mix for the individual title. The two previous years I had finished third at States, so finishing a couple of spots higher this time around was the ultimate goal!
It’s funny how certain things stand out on a summer day a good fifteen years ago now. That week for all the players the bunkers were played as waste areas. For those that don’t know, usually in a bunker, you aren’t allowed to ground your club prior to making a swing or it’s a penalty shot. So given there were a number of waste areas throughout the course the tournament directors decided to play every bunker as a waste so there wasn’t any confusion for the visiting teams. So like I said, the players knew of this course rule, but the parents and those spectating did not. Especially my parents who both not only played and know the rules of golf but also taught it.
Given the situation… Our team in contention. My score individually near the top of the leaderboard. And I’m in the final group on the back nine… every shot was important. To my dismay, I pulled my tee ball in a fairway bunker. So while waiting on the group ahead to get off the green I was taking my rehearsal swings with my six iron. Usually, you would have to hover it over the ground, but with the local rule, each swing of mine produced an array of splashed sand. I could hear the spectators’ muffled talk and them counting up each swing. As I looked back, I’ll never forget my dad’s bewildered and pale white face. I’d like to think the little smirk I gave him released the look of shock from his face, but at that point in time, it probably didn’t.
After tapping in my par putt I walked to the next tee and I informed my parents of the local rule, giving them a little chuckle in the process.”
Michael was the individual medalist for the 2006 State Tournament. He and his team went on to win the 2007 State Tournament.
Peaks and Valleys
O’Neal went on to suffer a drought with golf state championships for 10 years before securing consecutive state wins in 2018 and 2019. Based on NCISAA archives starting in 2003, O’Neal has claimed the individual medalist in 2003 and 2005 by Jack Ulrich ’06, 2006 and 2009 by Michael McGowan ’09, in 2017 by Jackson Van Paris ’21, in 2018 by Tommy Morrison ’23 and 2019 by Fulton Smith ’19.
Jackson Van Paris committed to Vanderbilt University for the fall of 2021. Also in the 2018 article he comments, “Education comes before golf and the individual attention my teachers have given me has allowed me to be successful in both. My teachers truly want me to do well and it’s cool to have that support.”
In the seventh grade, Fulton Smith ‘19 was fortunate to play on O’Neal’s varsity golf team. Also quoted for an article in 2018, “I was grateful to be able to play on a team,” says Fulton. “The aspect of playing your best for one common team goal was important for me. I was young, playing with those much older and better than me. Being a member of O’Neal’s golf team for all of these years has allowed me to play with really good golfers and they have pushed me to become even better.” Fulton is currently a member of the Wake Forest University Men’s Golf Team.
O’Neal’s history of producing college athletes for golf is almost as old as the School itself. The School’s decision to partner with Forest Creek Golf Club and launch a junior golf program – Traditions Golf Academy – is a result of the many years of having the privilege to educate such talent.
The 2021 varsity boys golf team will compete in a state tournament qualifier on May 3rd. With no contests in 2020 due to COVID-19, will this be a 3-peat for the state championship?
Falcons Fly to 50
O’Neal is excited to share its history with readers as it quickly nears its 50th year in educating and cultivating youth in becoming successful, effective contributors to communities large and small. The official celebration starts school year 2021/2022. This weekly blog will focus on different aspects of the School as it grew through the years. With every entry, there is just as much more information to gather than what is already written. Readers who have been a part of the O’Neal community are encouraged to reach out and share their O’Neal memories. It is with great hope that the efforts of many in contributing information and photography can be published into a book for reflection and reference as the School continues to prosper for the next 50 years.
Please send your memoirs and photos to:
The O’Neal School
c/o Kathy Taylor, Director of Communications
P.O. Box 290
Southern Pines, NC 28388