Last week, Bill O’Neill defeated Tom Smallwood in the title match of the PBA Players Championship presented by Snickers, marking his third career major victory and 14th career title.

With a certain Australian dominating the tour for more than a decade — the same man who exclusively refers to O’Neill as “William” — major championship wins have been hard to come by in the modern era. O’Neill’s third major elevates him to an uber-elite class.

Only six current, full-time touring players have met or exceeded O’Neill’s three major titles: the aforereferenced Jason Belmonte, Anthony Simonsen, EJ Tackett, François Lavoie, Chris Barnes and Dom Barrett. The list of current, full-time players who can match O’Neill’s 14 career titles is even smaller: Belmonte, Tackett, Barnes, Tommy Jones and Sean Rash.

If you’re doing the math at home, that means only three full-time active players can match O’Neill’s 14 titles and 3 majors. (Parker Bohn III, who bowls the tour part-time, would also qualify.)

Belmonte and Tackett are generation-defining talents and Hall-of-Fame locks. Barnes, a Class of ‘18 Hall of Famer, is 11 years O’Neill’s senior and has a son, Ryan, knocking on the door of PBA major titles himself; in fact, O’Neill defeated Ryan in the Players Championship semifinal match en route to his title last week.

“Chris is the reason why I played the lanes the way that I played them,” O’Neill said after last week’s Players Championship. “He taught me how to soften up my hand and lesson grip pressure and be able to play straighter and use the front part of the lane. That was his thing. I owe him one, but I guess I’ll have to take it from his kid.”

There’s only one way to properly encapsulate the illustrious résumé O’Neill is compiling: It’s the Real Deal.

It’s a fitting nickname for the 42-year-old PBA star.

First and foremost, it rhymes.

While rhyming is not a prerequisite for an elite nickname, it undeniably elevates an otherwise solid one. (See: Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, “Mean” Joe Greene and a certain Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback from O’Neill’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles.)

Secondly, there is no more apropos way to describe his O’Neill's talent and accolades.

From the moment he began his collegiate tenure at Saginaw Valley State, O’Neill established himself among the best players in the country. From 2000-2004, he amassed four consecutive First Team All-American selections while earning Most Valuable Player honors during his junior and senior seasons.

O’Neill carried over his collegiate success to the professional ranks, winning PBA Rookie of the Year in 2005-06. He captured his first title in Nov. 2009 and won multiple titles in four of the subsequent 11 seasons.

Now sitting on the precipice of Hall of Fame eligibility — with more than 10 titles, O’Neill only needs to reach 20 years of PBA membership to be eligible — O’Neill ended a three-and-a-half-year title drought last week with title no. 14. 

Fourteen: a number, for unrelated reasons, that O’Neill would soon like to forget.

Without titles in 2021 or 2022, O’Neill switched from 15-pound to 14-pound equipment before the 2023 season. Theoretically, the weight change would help him increase his rev rate to keep pace with the Belmontes and Tacketts and Simonsens of the tour.

Instead, O’Neill scored like my 61-year-old father, who switched to 14 pounds a few months after O’Neill. While O’Neill said he felt he bowled well early last season, his scores fell short of his standards.

Tackett, Simonsen and Belmonte won five of the season’s first six events; O’Neill failed to reach a championship round. Missed cuts in Akron and Kokomo spelled the end of O’Neill’s 14-pound era.

Following an adjustment period at the USBC Masters, O’Neill closed 2023 in Real Deal form.

He finished top-20 in all four WSOB XIV events, including eighth in the World Championship. In the high-scoring Roth/Holman PBA Doubles Championship, O’Neill and Belmonte finished eighth; they fell to Dom Barrett and Simonsen in the first stepladder match, 280-279.

Despite a season-high, third-place finish in May's PBA Players Championship, O’Neill made the short drive home dejected. Late in his semifinal match against Jakob Butturff, a few fortunate breaks fell in favor of the southpaw. 

The loss cost O’Neill a chance at winning a major with his wife, kids, friends and family sitting in the front row — and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Advancing to face Kevin McCune in the finals would’ve netted O’Neill at least an additional $25,000; a win, on top of a $100,000 check and a third major, would’ve been a euphoric, career-defining moment for O'Neill.

Furthermore, had O'Neill gone on to win that title, he would have qualified for the PBA Super Slam Cup (earning a minimum of $10,000 and a chance for $100,000) and earned another title opportunity in the PBA Tour Finals.

This misfortune, unbeknownst to O'Neill, had only just begun.

His partner, Shannon O’Keefe, had to withdraw from July’s Storm PBA/PWBA Striking Against Breast Cancer Mixed Doubles tournament at the last minute. Then, he triggered a long-standing back injury doing yard work just before the PBA League.

A rekindled season extinguished as soon as it began.

O'Neill's reaction to Butturff's match-winning strike.

O’Neill, his veteran savvy growing with each gray hair, planned ahead for the 2024 campaign. He scheduled his layover from Philadelphia to Wichita in Houston — not Chicago — to avoid weather delays caused by the expected Midwestern cold front.

Fate had other plans. When tornado warnings in the Houston area created delays and cost him the practice session of the 2024 Players Championship, it felt like 2023 all over again.

But the greats don’t let third parties control their careers. O’Neill grinded through the first day of qualifying, adjusting to all the new bowling ball releases, moved up the leaderboard and never looked back.

With the 14-pound equipment mercifully waning in the rearview mirror and his 14th trophy sitting on his mantle, the Real Deal is back — and he’s got his sights set on his next target.

“I’m coming for the TOC,” O’Neill emphasized after his season-opening win. “That’s the one I need.”