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June 25, 2009 by Bill Huffman

Big Break final is all-Arizona

 

By BILL HUFFMAN

       The Golf Channel is billing it as “The Sun Devil vs. The Wildcat.’’ But the best part about the final episode of “The Big Break: Prince Edward Island’’ is that it’s “Man vs. Woman,’’ an age-old rivalry that makes the final edition of the reality series a sure-fire success.

      What makes it even better for Arizonans is that Blair O’Neal, the former Arizona State standout from Tempe, is squaring off against Derek Gillispie, a Canadian who played golf for the University of Arizona and was, up until recently, the roommate to Ricky Barnes. (Yeah, that Ricky Barnes, the one who led for much of the recent U.S. Open before finishing as the runner-up!)

       The last act of  "The Big Break: Prince Edward Island'' takes place Monday beginning at 6 p.m. (Arizona time.) No matter what your view of the Big Break series, The Golf Channel could not have dreamed up a better finale for the $100,000 first prize.

        In one corner is O’Neal, the sizzling model/sexpot who hits the ball a mile and is a somewhat surprising finalist. Yes, O’Neal is “hot’’ and she’s knows it, but in a very likeable way.

      In the other is Gillispie, a good-looking guy whose background on the Canadian Tour makes him the favorite to win it all. A little arrogant, perhaps, Gillespie’s repertoire of shots has made him the favorite even if he’s not the best putter of the 12 original contestants – six men and six women.

       Even O’Neal thinks she is “the underdog.’’ But as she so poignantly added: “A lot of people have told me they think it will be a pretty even match. . . .

     “When all of the competitors first met me, I don’t think they would have bet I would have made it to the finals,’’ O’Neal added. “But here I am!’’

       She has proved to be a magician in the competition, skating through the elimination contests of the first nine episodes relatively unscathed even if she did once need a 40-foot putt, which she got. She drives the ball in the 280-yard range, which is why she’s been able to hang tough, like the latest episode when she shot 1-over 37 to Gillispie’s 35 for nine holes as the pair eliminated Ireland’s Brenda McLarnon (38).

     O’Neal seemingly has had as many lives as a cat along the way, which is good because there have been some catfights. Even though McLarnon once said of O’Neal, “She’s not just a pretty face, she can play,’’ it was McLarnon who said that O’Neal was about as exciting as talking to “cardboard’’ in the last episode.

      “My phone was blowing off the hook (Monday night) after she said that,’’ confirmed the 27-year-old O’Neal, whose claim to fame is that she twice was the long-driving champion at the NCAA Championship and was the state champ when she played high school golf for Corona del Sol.

       “Maybe (McLarnon) was upset that I wasn’t talking to her during the competition, I’m not sure. But I was focused on winning the $100,000. I guess the bottom line is that Brenda and I are two way-different people, and the comments she made just made her look bad.

      "All I know is, if you watched the show you know that I’ve never said anything bad about anyone that I have competed against during those two weeks of filming (last fall).’’

     Gillispie, for one, certainly isn’t taking O’Neal lightly. He called her a “fiery competitor,’’ which is kind of revealing since O’Neal always wears a baseball cap that says simply, “Faith’’ and often looks quite “angelic’’ during the brunt of the competition.

     “Blair can drive the ball long, much farther than most girls, and she’s got a surprising short game, so she’s dangerous,’’ said the 31-year-old Gillespie, whose resume includes two wins on the Canadian Tour and two seasons as an All-American at UA, where he played with such former Wildcat greats as Barnes, Rory Sabbatini and Barnes’ brother, Andy.

      “I wouldn’t say that I felt like I was the favorite coming into this, chiefly because I had been injured just prior to the filming and hadn’t picked up a club. I remember at the time we filmed it, I was hitting my drives kind of wacky, and I had no short game to speak of. And, trust me, on a show like this, one little wedge can be the difference between winning a $100,000 and being eliminated in the first round.’’

      But before anyone thinks that O’Neal is going to prevail on Monday night, Gillispie quickly added: “I think the point where I actually felt like I had a little advantage over the others was when I met the rest of the cast. I still didn’t think I was a shoe-in for the finals, but I did think I had the most playing experience at a higher level and that maybe that would ultimately be my secret weapon.’’

      As for his connection to the Barnes brothers, who he roomed with in Scottsdale until January of this year, Gillispie said it was an intense experience for him last week, almost causing him to drop out of a tournament in Ontario to fly down to Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.

      “Andy, who caddied for Ricky last week, is now the assistant golf coach at the UA and he was the main reason I came there to play golf in the first place,’’ said Gillispie, who grew up in Oshawa, Ontario., where he was the top junior in the province during the mid-1990s.

      “Ricky breaking the record (for 36 holes) and then making it into the final pairing, I was so nervous for him. A lot of our friends flew in to be with him on the weekend, but I couldn’t even get a flight down there for $1,000.’’

      Now Gillispie will be gunning for $100,000 of his own on Monday night against O’Neal, and they have a history. But, ironically, it didn’t come on the golf course.

     “I met her and her mother one night at the Yard House in Scottsdale, probably about a year before the (Big Break) competition,’’ Gillispie said, laughing at the thought. “I coaxed her into giving me her phone number, and I texted her that night, but she never bothered to text me back. Never got a response!

     “When we met again (during the Big Break), I asked her if she remembered me? She said she did remember me, and she handled it very coolly for the most part.’’

      O’Neal said she was shocked when the two actually came face-to-face on the set in the same golf cart on the first day of filming.

    “Oh, yeah, I remembered him right away,’’ she said. “He had wanted to meet me for drinks the night I was out with my mom. He was hitting on both of us, and he sent me several texts but I never got back to him.

     “But then again, that’s kind of Derek in a nutshell. I always give him a lot of crap about being a lady’s man.’’

     As for the ASU vs. UA rivalry, well, both played that angle down despite the network’s hype.

     “It really was never brought up during the filming,’’ Gillespie said. “I don’t think it's ever even come up between us.’’

     Added O’Neal: “Oh, I’m sure it’s a big deal to some people, but I think the guy-against-the-girl thing is an even bigger deal.’’

     Regardless of who wins, both O’Neal and Gillespie have become quite popular over the Big Break and hope to join some of the reality series’ more celebrated alumni, players who have become well-known like Tommy “Two Gloves’’ Gainey, James Nitties, Ashley Prange and Laura London.

    The Golf Channel certainly is doing all it can to further O’Neal’s and Gillespie’s reputations. In fact, they’re doing a facebook.com interaction during Monday’s telecast. (In that regard you might want to “facebook’’ Blair Alana O’Neal and Derek Gillespie and ask them to be your new best friends.)

     Just don’t try to get either of them to tell you the ending to “Big Break: Prince Edward Island.” If they told you they’d give up the $100,000, and that's not going to happen at this late date.

     “When we began this (11 weeks ago) it was so intense and there seemed to be so much pressure,’’ O’Neal acknowledged. “But it’s felt good all the way along even though it’s been a survival contest.

      “I’ve held it in for so long (who wins), and I’ve been really good about it. Now, in just a few days, everyone will know and that will be fun, too!’’

      From here, if Gillespie wins it is the expected. One thing is certain, it would be his biggest payday ever.

       On the other hand, O’Neal already is a winner just making it to the finals and getting all the exposure she has in the past 10 weeks. Should O’Neal win, however, it truly could be her biggest break yet.

        If the latter happens, women would love it, ASU fans revel in it, and Blair O’Neal could very well be on her way to stardom thanks to "The Big Break: Prince Edward Island.’’