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Tim O'Neill Didn't Leave a Blade of Grass Untouched

Tim O'Neill reshaped the Country Club of Darien into one of the premier courses in Connecticut

(April 11, 2021) – The rush of the morning maintenance at the Country Club of Darien is complete. The greens have been cut and rolled, the fairways mowed, the bunkers raked, and the question of whether or not to cut down a tree has been debated.

Throughout all of it, Tim O’Neill was a consistent buzz of motion. But now after punching in before the sun came up, the sun is high in the sky and it is time for lunch. For O’Neill it is a chance to grab a breather. He hops in his cart and heads to the 11th tee, the highest point on the property. From here he can see the entire course, and on a clear day all the way out to Long Island Sound.

During his 40-year career as the head superintendent at the Country Club of Darien, recently retired Tim O’Neill wasn’t idle often, but sitting on the 11th tee soaking in the view and remembering where the course began and how far it came during his tenure, he allowed a moment of calm.

“He was so prideful in his work ethic,” said CC of Darien head professional Cory Muller. “He was the first one in, the last one to leave, and that ups your game and makes you realize what makes you successful. He was always the guy in the cart smiling when a big event was finished. He never would jump in front of the camera but he was there in the background enjoying the success.”

Originally from Pawtucket, Rhode Island O’Neill got his start in golf as a caddy at Pawtucket Country Club in his early teens, and by the time he was 15-years-old he was a member of the course's grounds crew, a position he would hold for the next seven years until he graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1979 with a degree from the school's Turf Program.

“When I was at Pawtucket Country Club the golf course superintendent was a guy named Les Kennedy,” said Tim O’Neill. “He was also the golf pro there as well, and ended up being the pro for 40-50 years. He was a very good player, he won pretty much every open in New England and led after the first round of the 1949 U.S. Open. I started caddying for him and shagging balls and then he got me on the grounds crew at Pawtucket.”

With experience and a degree under his belt, O’Neill took an assistant superintendent position at Greenwich Country Club where he remained until 1981. But he wasn’t ready to rest on the laurels of his early successes, and it didn’t take long before he was looking for a head superintendent position. By the time he interviewed at the Country Club of Darien he had already taken a few interviews at other courses.  

When O’Neill interviewed with CC of Darien the course was in poor condition, but O’Neill saw what the course could be and most importantly he impressed owner Edgar Auchincloss.

“After the interview, I said to Mr. Auchincloss that I would really like a chance to talk turf with you another time and he said well let’s do that now,” O’Neill said. “It was a Monday so it was pretty empty and we went into the grill room and started talking for another hour about the benefits of irrigation, crabgrass and that is what I think won him over.”

Following a meeting with the course manager a short time later a decision that would change the CC of Darien's history forever was made.

“On another Monday they called me back to meet Mr. Auchincloss for a second time and they offered me the job,” O’Neill explained. “Mr. Auchincloss asked how much I wanted [to be paid] and being 24 I wasn’t ready for that question. But I said $24,000 because I was 24 and he said that isn’t enough, I am going to pay you $27,000 and that is how it started.”

Five years later in 1986, the members bought the club from Auchincloss, and as the course became a more traditional members club, it began to change going from mediocre to now being one of the premier courses in the region.

By the early 1990s, O’Neill was establishing himself as one of the more well-regarded superintendents in the area, and similar to how he was helped by others early in his career he was starting to give back to the game he loved. O’Neill was a member primarily of the MetGCSA serving as president from 1992-1993 but was also a member of the Connecticut and Rhode Island chapters of the GCSAA. In addition, O’Neill was a founding member of the Tri-State Research Foundation and a member of the national board of the GCSAA including a year as president in 2005.

O’Neill was also a pioneer in creating an internship program for superintendents. Anthony Girardi, now in his 27th year as the head superintendent at Rockrimmon Country Club, interned for O’Neill during the summers of 1990 and 1991, and when asked what he learned from O’Neill he responded by saying, “What did I not learn while I was there?” Girardi learned so much during his first year that when he was invited back for a second summer he jumped at the opportunity.

“I was asking [Tim] what I could keep doing to build my career and he said if you come back for a second year I promise you a more prominent role as almost a second assistant and that stuck out to me. I didn’t apply to any other internships that second year and he kept his word and then some,” Girardi continued. “I really felt like I was an assistant super that whole second year so for him to have that much confidence in me spoke volumes of how much respect I had for him.”

Having strong members of his maintenance team, whether an intern, a seasonal worker, or a full-time member of the staff O’Neill is the first one to tell you that he couldn’t have accomplished anything without them to lean on.

“Having a staff is probably the number one challenge,” said O’Neill. “As I left this spring there are a number of guys that worked for me for 25 years. Those people were huge to the success I had, to have that talent around me was so important. It isn’t an easy thing to get those people so I feel I am pretty fortunate to have as many good people as I did.”

As the CC of Darien continued to improve the club set its sights on attracting major regional tournaments. In 2007 they hired Dr. Michael Hurdzan to create a master redesign for the course. Shortly after the design was completed work began and from 2007-2010 hardly a blade of grass or a spec of sand was left unturned. When the redesign was done the sides had been flipped, all the tees and bunkers rebuilt, the par dropped from 72 to 71, holes were rerouted, ponds were added, and greens rebuilt.

Since the renovation was completed the CC of Darien has hosted a number of prestigious championships including the Westchester PGA, Westchester Open, The IKE, and now the 2021 Connecticut Open

Through it, all O’Neill still managed to find time for his family. He has been married to his wife Jennifer for 33 years and has a son Justin who is 30 and a daughter Kristen who is 28. “I think it is great, we’re all excited for him, and I’m proud of him,” Justin O’Neill said of his father's work in a 2005 feature about O’Neill titled The Natural.

When O’Neill joined the CC of Darien in 1981 he had no idea the journey that he was set to embark on but when the final blade of grass was cut he had reshaped the course from an afterthought on the Connecticut scene to a course worthy of holding the biggest and best championships that the region can offer.

“I would definitely say in the beginning I didn’t think I would be there for 40 years,” O’Neill said. “I thought Darien would a stepping stone to another club in the MET area. But I loved the work and they kept putting money into the golf course and they kept me motivated in that way. I met a lot of people, I know 2-3 generations of families. I felt like I knew the golf course and I knew the people.”

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About the CSGA

Founded in 1899, the CSGA is the country's oldest state golf association and, as an Allied Golf Association of the USGA, provides stewardship for amateur golf in Connecticut. In addition to administering handicaps for over 40,000 members at 181 member clubs, the CSGA conducts more than 85 days of competition throughout the year for golfers of all ages, genders, and skill levels. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the CSGA supports a variety of golf organizations within Connecticut, including the Connecticut Association of Golf Course Superintendents, Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, Connecticut Section PGA, Connecticut Women’s Golf Association, CSGA Scholarship Fund in honor of Widdy Neale, LPGA-Amateur Golf Association, Southern New England Women’s Golf Association, and The First Tee of Connecticut.