The Odd Couple
Scotsman Callum McNeill is teeing it up in his second consecutive Korn Ferry event, and he can thank Hal Sutton for helping him get there
By Ryan French
In early 2021, Callum McNeill was working as an assistant pro at The Clubs at Houston Oaks, daydreaming about being a tour pro. That’s when his life was changed by an unlikely guardian angel in Hal Sutton, a 14-time PGA Tour winner and major champion, who had taken a liking to McNeill. “I think you can do it,” Sutton told McNeill. “I think I can get you there, but this is a full-time job.” The next day, McNeill quit the pro shop and began to chase his dream.
McNeill’s first memory of Sutton came while watching a tape of the 2002 Ryder Cup when he was a youngster in his native Scotland. McNeill has always been a fan of the gritty golfer from Louisiana. Fast forward almost 15 years, and he had ventured into a career in professional golf.
McNeill was like a lot of aspiring pros — short on money. To pay the bills, he settled into a routine of working at the Renaissance Club in Scotland during the summer and at Houston Oaks during the winter. It was in Houston where he met Sutton, who had been named director of golf at the club in 2019. McNeill had started at Houston Oaks in outside services but was working as the first assistant pro when Sutton came on board.
As the years passed, McNeill dreamed of playing full-time. He dabbled in Texas PGA section events and experienced some success, including a win in the 2018 section qualifier for the National Assistant Championship. He finished in the top 10 at the national tournament. In 2019 he went to LatinoAmerica Q-school and earned conditional status. But although he was getting some financial help from members at the club, he didn’t have enough money in the bank to quit his day job. “You know, rent and stuff,” he says now.
In 2020 McNeill again earned conditional status on the LatinoAmerica Tour and made one of two cuts, all while working 25 to 30 hours a week to make ends meet.
His relationship with Sutton continued to grow. The two played and talked often. “At times it was very surreal,” McNeill says. “He would be telling a story about Tiger (Woods) or the Players.”
In August 2020, Sutton opened a golf academy in Houston. McNeill visited him the following February, and the meeting would change the direction of his career. That night Sutton called and told McNeill he would like to coach and mentor him. They met the next morning, and McNeill pushed all of his chips to the middle.
His first call was to the owner of the club. Not only had Houston Oaks employed him, but it also was sponsoring his work visa. The owner gave McNeill his full support. The next obstacle was figuring out how to pay the bills. He approached the member who had been helping him out the previous few years and asked for his support. The member went a step further and arranged a meeting with 25 members of the club. After making his sales pitch, McNeill, 27, raised enough money to pay his bills and to play full-time for a couple of years.
But tour golf can be a rude awakening. In the beginning, he missed a bunch of cuts and burned through a ton of money. When entry fees are $1,000 and you tack on travel expenses, your account balance can dwindle quickly. McNeill headed to Q-school for the Korn Ferry Tour last September feeling plenty of pressure, but also with a newfound confidence. He had begun working with Chase Cooper, the head instructor at the Sutton Academy, and talked with PGA Tour member Roger Sloan, with whom he had become friends. He leaned on those two as well as Sutton.
Sutton says Cooper handles most of the swing aspects of McNeill’s game, while he mostly addresses the mental side. “I helped him with his expectations,” Sutton says. “Pro golf is managing the imperfect. There might be two times a year when things are perfect.” The two text and talk often.
At the first stage of Q-school, McNeill shot 9 under and got through easily. At the second stage, however, he headed into the final round well outside the number, needing a great day to have a chance. All he did was shoot a bogey-free 65, tied for the best round of the day. He moved up 21 spots and got through by two.
At final stage, McNeill struggled and finished T119th. Although he’s a Korn Ferry member, he won’t be exempt into many (if any) events this season. So the Monday qualifiers have become vital, and last week McNeill shot 64 to get into the Lake Charles (La.) Championship. He was staring at a huge opportunity. If he played well and made the cut, the money earned would move him up in the reshuffle, which could result in multiple additional Korn Ferry starts. Things didn’t go as planned.
The life of a Monday qualifier is never easy, and one of the challenges is finding a caddie. McNeill hired a long-time caddie nicknamed Businessman Bill, who is notorious for hanging out in parking lots looking for a last-minute bag. In the first round McNeill teed off on 10, and four holes later Businessman Bill announced his Achilles was bothering him. As McNeill walked to the 15th tee, he found his driver laying on the ground. Bill had headed up the fairway “to get a head start.” By 16 Bill could hardly walk, so a rules official went looking for a volunteer, whom he brought over on the 17th tee. The volunteer was a nice 65-year-old man, but he had never carried a golf bag. Businessman Bill was waiting at the turn; he said he was feeling better, so he took over again for the back nine. He hobbled along for the next nine holes, often 100 yards behind. McNeill let him go after the round. Welcome to the Korn Ferry Tour, kid.
Sutton was there again to pick him up; a text was awaiting when McNeill got off the course. “I’m sorry this event didn’t go like you wanted,” Sutton wrote, “but it’s a long journey and many lessons to be learned. Sometimes those lessons seem hard. Stay focused on what you want.”
A Houston Oaks member drove over and caddied for McNeill the next day. He followed an opening 75 up with a second-round 78 and finished last in the field.
McNeill replied later, “I’ve got a couple of days to go shoot -8 in Savannah (Ga.) for the next Monday Q.”
He shot 67, which was good enough to Monday qualify again, this time for this week’s Club Car Championship at The Landings Club. It was quite the bounce-back, and just as they had talked after the first successful Monday Q, McNeill will undoubtedly tell Sutton all about the round while discussing his second Korn Ferry start. Every aspiring tour pro needs a mentor, and McNeill has found a good and willing one.