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10/23/2013 12:01:00 AM
Local professional named as one of state's top instructors by Golf Digest
Brian O'Neill
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Brian O'Neill

By Andy Sneddon

Special to Harbor Light Newspaper

Brian O'Neill has established quite a reputation in Michigan golf circles.

Now, that reputation is spreading to a national level.

O'Neill, the Director of Instruction at Boyne Golf Academy at Boyne Resorts, recently was named one of Michigan's Best Teachers by Golf Digest. He was one of just 15 names on the prestigious list.

"With the names on that list and whatnot, it's quite an honor to be recognized by your peers," said the 44-year-old Harbor Springs native. "To me it's a wonderful recognition. You don't do the job looking for that kind of recognition, but it comes to you with the kind of passion that you put into it. It's a great feeling."

Golf Digest named top teachers in all 50 states. The number varied by the number of golf professionals in each state. For example, 49 teachers in Florida were named to the list, 46 in California, while just three were named in Iowa.

Fifteen names appear on the Michigan list, and O'Neill was rated No. 9 in the state. Rick Smith of the Rick Smith Golf Academy at Oakland University in Rochester was named Michigan's No. 1 Best Teacher, while Jason Guss of the Rick Smith and Jason Guss Golf Academy at Treetops Resort in Gaylord earned the No. 6 spot. Also on the list were Edward LaPrade (fifth) and Brad Dean (14th), both of Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville.

O'Neill said the process began with a nomination, and he said he did not know who nominated him. From there, the teachers were voted on by a peer group. It is the first time O'Neill has been so honored.

O'Neill will receive a plaque from the magazine commemorating his honor, and will now become eligible to nominate others for the prestigious award.

O'Neill's list of golf accomplishments runs long and deep. He administers the Nike Junior Golf Camps at Boyne Resorts, a program that encompasses about 175 players. He coached the Harbor Springs High School boys' and girls' golf teams for eight years, and he founded the girls' program at the school.

He is no longer in charge of the Ram program that last weekend placed sixth in the Division IV state tournament. One of the team's top players, Abby Detmar, is a student of O'Neill's.

"Having started the team eight years ago, it gives me a certain sense of personal pride and accomplishment to see them doing well," he said.

A year ago, O'Neill began working with the Saginaw Nouvel High School boys' golf team, traveling to the school weekly to work with its players throughout the school year. Last spring, Nouvel finished second in the Division IV state tournament, and two Panthers finished in the top 10 individually in the event.

O'Neill, a 1987 Harbor Springs High School graduate, earned his degree from Ferris State University's prestigious Golf Management Program in 1992.

He worked as the head professional at the Donald Ross Memorial and Heather courses at Boyne Highlands before becoming Boyne's director of instruction 12 years ago.

In recent years, O'Neill helped launch the Boyne Academy at King Par Golf near Flint, and in 2012, he financially backed the Michigan PGA Junior Tour, an eight-event series that included O'Neill-led seminars and clinics.

Several of O'Neill's students have gone on to standout playing careers in the game, including Petoskey native Joe Garber, Andrew Ruthkoski of Muskegon, and Morgan Smith of Muskegon.

Smith is now a member of the women's golf team at Oakland University, Ruthkoski counts Michigan Open and Michigan Tournament of Champions titles on his resume, and Garber is the captain of the University of Georgia men's golf team after a stellar junior career in Michigan.

"The recognition of some of my students who have really succeeded in the higher levels of competition, it brings recognition to your name when you have kids having success," O'Neill said. "I believe that had a part" in winning the award.

"Those things lead to your name coming up a lot in the world of instruction related to golf."

O'Neill continues his work with young players, and he said one in particular, 8-year-old P.J. Maybank of Cheboygan, is showing a ton of promise. Maybank won eight of the 16 events he entered last summer in the Meijer Junior Tour Age 7-9 Division, earning divisional Player of the Year honors.

"He shoots consistently in the low to mid 80s," O'Neill said. "He reminds me a lot of a young Joey Garber. He doesn't talk a whole lot, but he'll hit balls for hours and hours.

"It's fun to find kids like that in northern Michigan who have the passion for it. I've been lucky to have coached some pretty talented kids."

O'Neill himself has had a number of standout mentors from his early days as a player through his increasingly successful teaching career.

Two, in particular, helped mold him and cultivate his love of the game and instruction, he said.

"I certainly owe a majority of it to people who have shaped my career, one being the late Ed Kelbel Sr.," O'Neill said. "He was my swing coach for years when I was a kid. And the late Jim Flick, who passed away last November. I was fortunate to share an office space, the teaching tee at Boyne, with Jim Flick, who was in the top five instructors in the country for years and years.

"He mentored me and really played a huge role in my learning to teach and coach. He kind of brought a passion out in me and I certainly owe a lot to him. If you're working side by side with someone who's in the top five of your career path, shame on you if you don't learn from him.

"I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity. And he definitely brought a passion to the job that was infectious to me."

Andy Sneddon is a freelance writer and will be an occasional contributor to the Harbor Light Newspaper.

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