Tom Pernice Jr. couldn’t find the fairways, the greens or the cup at the 2021 Regions Tradition event, held in the suburbs of Birmingham. A PGA Tour and now Champions Tour fixture for nearly four decades, Pernice, 62, knew about the fickle fates of golf. He had played plenty of rounds—and plenty of events—that didn’t meet his standards. But this may have qualified as the most misbegotten weekend of his pro career.
By the last hole Sunday, Pernice had carded a plus-31 to finish behind Tom Kite and Scott Hoch, dead last in the 80-man field. The tournament winner, Alex Cejka, earned $375,000. Pernice took home $1,075, considerably less than his expenses for the week. His spirits already darkened, Pernice turned violent, says his girlfriend at the time, MaryAnn O’Neill, now 41.
That evening, Pernice and O’Neill swapped their tournament courtesy car for a rental car and hit the highway for the next Champions Tour stop, outside Atlanta. She says she was using the GPS on Pernice’s phone when she noticed that he had surreptitiously called his former wife earlier that morning.
O’Neill was displeased and wanted to discuss it. She says the two argued as they headed east, with Pernice driving and O’Neill in the passenger seat. They hadn’t crossed into Georgia when he began striking her on the leg with a closed fist. He then took her phone. In physical pain and “petrified,” O’Neill says, she used her iPad to text her friend Christy (who spoke at length with Sports Illustrated and requested that her last name not be used, for fear of reprisal). A series of contemporaneous texts, viewed by SI, reads in part:
O’Neill: “I’m going to have massive bruises tomorrow. I’m so sick of this asshole!”
Christy: “What happened. Go call me.”
O’Neill, quoting Pernice: “I’m going to keep hitting you every time you open your f—— mouth.”
O’Neill then texted: “He took my phone. I’m on my IPad.”
Christy: “Babe U need to record this”
So O’Neill did.
She used the voice memo app on her tablet and secretly recorded an exchange. In an audio clip that she provided to SI, O’Neill asks Pernice: “How do you just, like, beat your girlfriend? And then stop and go through a drive-through and eat and then listen to Christian music for two and a half hours?”
Pernice responds: “Because you won’t keep your mouth shut. I kept warning you to keep your mouth shut and quit doing it. You have no consequences. You think you can say and do whatever the f—, what you think you can do. I’m tired of it. Not gonna happen.”
“So, O.K., you’re just gonna beat me?”
“What else am I gonna do? I hit you f—— in the leg. I’m not beating you.”
“You literally said to me, ‘There, I’m gonna leave bruises for you tomorrow.’”
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“I hit you right in your leg.”
“My wrist hurts, too.”
O’Neill says this was not the first time Pernice had been violent with her. It wasn’t even the first time he had been violent with her in conjunction with the Regions Tradition event. At the tour stop in 2018, O’Neill says that Pernice bruised her right arm when he struck her with a cellphone while they were at a FedEx Office location in suburban Birmingham. A report taken by a detective for the Hoover (Ala.) Police Department, reviewed by SI, confirmed “visible bruising.” (O’Neill did not pursue criminal charges.)
After the 2018 incident, Pernice was not disciplined by the PGA Tour, despite the fact that O’Neill feels the Tour should have known about the assault. O’Neill says the violence continued intermittently for the next three years. Following the ’21 incident in the car, O’Neill sent the PGA the audio file, and Pernice was disciplined quietly, serving a 30-day suspension last summer as well as mandated anger-management therapy. Yet, despite facing felony charges for intimidation against O’Neill in Massachusetts (Pernice’s attorney says they have a hearing Sept. 29 for a motion to dismiss all charges), Pernice continues competing.
In response to a series of questions from SI emailed to Pernice, his attorney, Patrick Donovan, sent a statement that read in part: “Tom Pernice vehemently denies ever being abusive in any way, either physically, verbally or financially to Ms. O’Neill. Since their breakup [in the summer of 2021] Ms. O’Neill has proven herself to be a liar and a thief hell-bent on destroying Mr. Pernice. … She uses a distorted version of the facts to only ruin Mr. Pernice and financially benefit herself all for breaking up with her. She will stop at nothing to extort Mr. Pernice and unjustly enrich herself. It comes as no surprise Mrs. O’Neill would resort to a disinformation campaign.”
SI presented the PGA Tour with a list of detailed questions pertaining to the allegations against Pernice and the information O’Neill shared with it. In response, Joel Schuchmann, SVP communications, provided a statement that read in full: “While we do not disclose specific disciplinary action and will not comment on this instance in detail, it is important to note that the PGA TOUR takes allegations of domestic violence very seriously. In matters involving potential criminal activity, we immediately offer assistance in bringing forward the complaint to the appropriate authorities for further investigation and action. We also take appropriate action based upon our own investigation, including – but not limited to – suspension from tournament play as well as resources and treatment, such as mandatory counseling. Furthermore, we may take further action based upon any findings by law enforcement and/or the outcome of any criminal proceedings.”
Nevertheless, the set of circumstances offers a window into how a major sports organization—absent a firm domestic violence policy—responds to reports of domestic violence. And the result: A volatile relationship reportedly turned violent repeatedly, an athlete faces felony charges for actions that took place less than six months after a suspension and mandated therapy, and a survivor feels ignored and unsafe.
O’Neill recalls that she and Pernice first met at the Champions Tour event in Biloxi, Miss., in the spring of 2015. An independent sports marketer from Boston, she was working to recruit players for a pro-am event in Rhode Island. Later, she also worked to find sponsorship deals for PGA Tour events.
Pernice had been an All-American golfer at UCLA—his college teammates included Corey Pavin, Steve Pate and Duffy Waldorf—and first joined the PGA Tour in the mid-1980s. He would go on to earn nearly $15 million in prize money. Upon turning 50 years old in 2009, he joined the Champions Tour (previously known as the Senior PGA Tour) and would become one of its most reliable players.
O’Neill recalls that when she first met Pernice on the course, she was underwhelmed. “My first impression was that he was the most abrasive jerk I had ever met in my life,” she says. But then they began talking in the clubhouse. Pernice had separated from his wife at the time. Pernice asked O’Neill not to return to the East Coast and, instead, spend the weekend with him. “We met on March 26,” she says. “By March 27, we were essentially in a relationship.” They would remain in a relationship for the next six years, though they broke up and reconciled multiple times.
Within a year, that relationship turned violent, O’Neill says. She recollects dining with Pernice in downtown Naples, Fla., on Valentine’s Day 2016 when they had a dispute. She says that she had caught him lying about a text exchange with his ex-wife. She remembers the argument ending with Pernice grabbing and twisting her wrists.
She recounts: “He wouldn’t let go even though I kept saying, ‘You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me.’ He just kept saying, ‘Stop calling me a liar. Stop saying I’m lying.’ So, I had to say, ‘O.K., you’re not a liar,’ until he would release his grip. He was doing this right in front of the other couple, and the wife had a look of utter shock, yet no one stopped him.”
O’Neill says that Pernice was often physically and verbally abusive. “The abuse,” she says, “was always the worst when he felt like he was losing control.” She says he was also, often, an ideal partner. “Tom only has two sides to him. He either would talk to me [abusively], or he was the most loving caregiver of all time.”
In May 2018, O’Neill accompanied Pernice to the Regions event—the same tour stop where it would turn violent again three years later. She says that on the evening of May 15, they went to a FedEx Office location in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, to print pages from a yardage guide Pernice and his caddy used. When O’Neill took Pernice’s phone to help with printing, she says, she noticed a photo that Pernice’s ex-wife had sent him that day. “I deleted it and confronted him on why he would save any photo with her in it.” She says he responded, “Don’t tell me what to do.” And struck her with the phone.
She says an employee who witnessed the attack asked her whether she wanted to contact the police. She declined. But when she walked to the car to retrieve her phone, Pernice locked the doors. “It was him showing me he was the one in control.” Eventually, they left together. O’Neill says when she asked whether Pernice was going to apologize for assaulting her, he responded, “If you hadn’t been such a little b—-, I wouldn’t have needed to have done that.”
The following day she filed an offense report with the Hoover Police Department, reviewed by SI. While O’Neill says she wasn’t sure whether she would press charges, she wanted the incident documented. The reporting officer recounted the assault and noted: “The strike left a slight bruise on her right arm, visible at the time of reporting.”
O’Neill faced a dilemma. If she said nothing the violence might continue unchecked. But if she reported him to the PGA Tour and he found out it was her, it might spell the end of their relationship, potentially enraging him and/or causing him to cut her off financially. (That the reported act occurred at a location for FedEx, a premium PGA Tour sponsor, only complicated matters further.)
She attempted to “thread the needle,” as she puts it, by reporting the incident to Jimmy Gabrielsen, the PGA’s head of player relations, whom she knew personally and professionally. O’Neill recounted the incident and mentioned a PGA Tour player was the perpetrator but didn’t mention Pernice by name. This way, she reckoned, the Tour would be put on notice. It could easily deduce that he was the player she reported; it was well known to PGA Tour officials that Pernice and O’Neill were in a relationship—they frequently sent communications intended for her through Pernice—and in subsequent emails to O’Neill regarding the incident at the FedEx store, reviewed by SI, Gabrielsen repeatedly referred to Pernice by name. Yet, she could rightly claim not to have specifically identified Pernice. O’Neill suggested the PGA Tour’s corporate security get involved, knowing the division was run by a former FBI special agent.
In response, Gabrielsen wrote to O’Neill, in an email viewed by SI, “We would be happy to pursue this matter with the player, if you were willing to provide us with a copy of the police report and any details that would further explain the incident.” He also encouraged her to “pursue it via the legal system.” Fearing reprisal from Pernice, O’Neill says she was not comfortable providing additional information for an investigation and did not pursue the matter through the legal system but was hopeful the PGA Tour would still pursue the matter independently.
The PGA Tour via Schuchmann, the spokesperson, declined multiple interview requests for Gabrielsen and other officials.
“To put it mildly, it’s not good practice to make further investigation contingent on the victim providing documentation,” says Kim Susser, a New York victims’ rights lawyer and domestic violence consultant. “You would think the [PGA Tour] would have the resources, policies and education to do the investigation themselves.”
Pernice missed no events in 2018, faced no discipline and, O’Neill says as far as she knows, was never interviewed by the PGA.
“One reason to have policies in place for any sort of abuse is to avoid exactly this kind of scenario,” Susser says. “When you have practices in place, it makes the process uniform, consistent and fair, and a way to avoid asking inappropriate questions. And it’s aligned with the times—other [sports] leagues have these [domestic violence] policies for a reason.”
In addition to acts of violence, O’Neill says that Pernice also practiced what she calls “financial abuse,” threatening to cut her off from various perks, from billing privileges at the Silverleaf Country Club in Scottsdale, to therapy he paid for to airline lounge access. “Nothing was in my name and it never was,” she says. “Everything was, I can take everything away from you because the only reason you have anything in this world is because of me.”
Donovan, Pernice’s attorney, wrote in an email to SI: “Ms. O’Neill has tried to ruin Mr. Pernice’s professional and personal life. She has made demands for large sums of money, going so far as revealing intimate information to Mr. Pernice’s adult daughter in the hopes, she would ‘talk sense into him.’”
O’Neill’s friends urged her to leave him. Christy, who lives in Southern California, recalled to SI that she would be speaking to O’Neill by phone and overhear Pernice berating her. “I would have to hang up; it was so horrible.” She did not witness physical abuse but says, “Literally, the moment [violence] would happen, she would call me. … He was very controlling, very manipulative.” She and other friends encouraged O’Neill to end the relationship. But time and again, the couple would fight and then reunite.
Their volatile relationship was complicated by O’Neill’s professional ties to the PGA Tour, and O’Neill believes that her concerns were not taken seriously when she reported them in May 2018. When she brought her domestic violence allegations to Gabrielsen—who told her, in an email reviewed by SI, that he had shared her account from ’18 with other PGA Tour executives—she feels she was looked upon not as a survivor but rather as a familiar and problematic figure, a former business associate with whom many executives had, at times, a contentious relationship.
Before dating a prominent player, O’Neill was already known within PGA circles. She was a manager for Tour players from 2010 to ’11—Pete Jordan was her biggest client—and then became an independent sports broker. Among her projects: She cofounded the Charmed Foundation and in ’17 helped recruit David Ortiz to appear at its gala.
By the mid-2010s, O’Neill was trying to secure title sponsorships for Champions Tour events. She signed a contract with the PGA Tour enabling her to earn a commission if she sold title sponsorships. This afforded her access to events and put her in contact with various Tour employees and executives. (O’Neill says she sold the Rapiscan title sponsorship for the Biloxi event, for which she was paid a $237,000 fee over six installments.)
On multiple occasions, O’Neill says she was in the Tour’s crosshairs and that it claimed she abused her privileges and access. In 2016 she was suspended from player dining for a handful of events when the PGA accused her of giving her credential to a friend who then entered a player dining area.
According to an email to O’Neill from PGA chief tournaments and competitions officer Andy Pazder, reviewed by SI, O’Neill’s credential was revoked for a year, in June 2017, after a second incident. The PGA Tour held out the possibility of reinstating O’Neill’s credential if she “comported herself for the balance of the year without incident.” O’Neill says Pernice advocated for her.
She says that, in 2017, she was still owed $50,000 for the Rapiscan sponsorship fee. And when the PGA attempted to communicate sensitive business information to her through Pernice, she objected, via email, to the Tour doing business through her partner and closed the email with a reference to #MeToo.
Pazder sent Pernice an email in February 2018, explaining that the PGA would not reinstate O’Neill’s access, after O’Neill showed up for a meeting at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Phoenix on Nov. 10, 2017, wearing her revoked credential.
As Pazder wrote Pernice: “During [a breakfast] meeting, Mary Ann [sic] left the meeting and went back into player dining, without permission, and began telling players and spouses that she ‘saved the Mississippi tournament’ and made numerous other disrupting statements that were communicated to our staff throughout the weekend. … In my opinion, Mary Ann [sic] has not exhibited the type of behavior that justifies reinstatement of her PGA TOUR credential. … Additionally, there was a series of irrational and inflammatory emails that Mary Ann [sic] sent to Jimmy Gabrielsen and Miller Brady in January 16-18 timeframe. I personally reviewed these emails, and Mary Ann’s [sic] use of the #metoo tag was reckless, irresponsible and completely unfounded.”
A longtime female golf executive, who requested her name not be used because of fear of retaliation, agrees with O’Neill’s characterization that her allegations were not taken seriously because of her past contretemps with the PGA Tour. “She didn’t pop up out of nowhere,” says the source. “The Tour has a reputation for treating wives and girlfriends a certain [positive] way. But it’s as long as they stay out of the way. And MaryAnn doesn’t stay out of the way.”
Immediately after the 2021 incident in the car, O’Neill texted the audio file to Gabrielsen. According to O’Neill, she spoke to PGA director of corporate security Steve Olson for two hours days later. Early the next week, on June 1, O’Neill says the PGA Tour informed her they had suspended Pernice indefinitely pending an investigation. A week later, O’Neill says, she learned from a friend of Pernice’s that he’d been suspended for 90 days. Though the PGA Tour makes no mention of domestic violence in its Champions handbook and has no formal domestic violence policy, it would have been able to rely on broad language that Pernice had engaged in “conduct unbecoming a professional.”
Pernice immediately appealed the suspension, and he turned to O’Neill to bolster his defense. “Feeling pressured,” she says, on June 10, 2021, she wrote a letter to the PGA Tour commissioner, Jay Monahan, that read in part, “I would respectfully ask the TOUR, to consider my wishes and impose harsher sanctions pertaining to the psychological counseling in replacement of the suspension of play.”
Shortly thereafter, Pernice’s suspension was reduced to 30 days. He was also ordered to attend anger management; he was permitted to hand-select his therapist. No one told O’Neill. She says she learned after finding Pernice listed as a participant in a tournament at the end of June, at which point Olson confirmed the shortened suspension to her. (Schuchmann, on behalf of Olson, declined multiple interview requests for Olson.) Neither the original nor the amended punishments were announced publicly—this is at odds with sports organizations that have domestic violence policies, as they often include provisional suspensions pending investigations, and transparency about findings and discipline.
In the summer of 2021, the romantic relationship between Pernice and O’Neill ended, but their interactions did not. O’Neill returned to Massachusetts. She had recently overcome cancer and “needed to repair my life and my credit rating.” By this point, she says, fearing retaliation for her role in his suspension, she filed multiple domestic abuse incidents against Pernice. As a result, there was a declaration of arrest in Murrieta, Calif., for a September ’20 incident at what was their home at the time. (The Riverside County district attorney’s office told SI, “No case was filed due to a lack of sufficient evidence.”) In Alabama, a warrant for Pernice’s arrest was issued on July 10, 2021, for the incident in which he punched her in the leg while they drove. (Pernice’s lawyer says he is unaware of any arraignment.)
In September 2021, a lawyer representing O’Neill sent Pernice a letter with a drafted civil complaint asking to settle. According to Pernice’s lawyer, O’Neill was seeking “in excess of $250,000.” There was no settlement. O’Neill says, “We held off filing the case at that time because more of his abuse continued and additional information kept coming out. … I may still file a civil case against Pernice personally.”
On Oct. 24, 2021, Pernice contacted her in a text reviewed by SI. He wrote to her about dropping the abuse charges—which is to say, ceasing to cooperate with law enforcement—and in exchange he would not retaliate against her. “Just drop it. I’m not going to file any charges against you as long as you don’t keep going w/ all you [sic] rediculous [sic] accusations of me to police. Easy. Stop. And go on in your life.” She says that on the same day, he called her by phone and relayed the same message. (Phone records reviewed by SI confirm repeated calls from Pernice.)
In addition to the domestic violence charge in Alabama, Pernice, on account of the text message, faces two charges of intimidation in Massachusetts, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in state prison. As a condition of his release, there is a criminal no-contact order.
In January, Pernice and O’Neill discussed yet another reconciliation. It ended with her flying to Scottsdale, another dispute and the police being called. According to the police on scene, “I advised MaryAnn that Thomas did not commit an assault because he used reasonable force to remove her from his property after she failed to vacate his premise[s] after he instructed her to do so.”
In June, O’Neill first reached out to SI to share her story. “I realize that I am a textbook case for domestic violence,” she says. “Not just cycles [of abuse] and the decision I made that people who haven’t been in the situation don’t understand. Why did you keep going back to him? But I am also a victim in terms of not being taken seriously by people, in this case the PGA Tour, that could have stopped it. … So that’s why I am opening up.”
That week Tom Pernice Jr. played the American Family Insurance Championship in Madison, Wis. He made three straight birdies in the final round and finished second, earning $211,200 for the weekend.