Jones completes climb to Open win Playoff qualifier triumphs by 1 shot

June 17, 1996|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Tear up your hand in a dirt-bike accident to the point where you can't swing a club for 17 months, and when you can, rely on a new grip.

Scramble to save par on the last hole of a sectional qualifier, then survive a playoff there just to become one of the 156 players in the U.S. Open.

Once you're at Oakland Hills Country Club, open with a 74 and fall seven strokes off the pace.

Now that he is the champion of the U.S. Open, everyone knows the troubles that Steve Jones has seen. A 37-year-old resident of Phoenix, Ariz., Jones rose from the ashes of a burned-out career to become one of the most improbable winners of his nation's title, albeit a deserving one.

"I was never very good in school, so I can never come up with anything eloquent to say, but it is the thrill of a lifetime," said Jones, whose play spoke volumes.

He seemed destined for a playoff, before the more highly regarded Davis Love III and Tom Lehman had bogeys on No. 18 that they'll regret at least until the British Open. Jones was hardly handed this championship, however, as he was the only player to shoot under par 70 over each of the last three rounds.

The last shot of the tournament, a one-foot putt for par by Jones, was the margin of victory over Love (69) and Lehman (71).

Working on literary and religious inspiration -- he was enthralled last week by a biography of Ben Hogan, and playing partner Lehman quoted him some Scripture on the first tee -- Jones posted his second straight 69 yesterday. He finished with a four-day total of 278, 2-under par and one stroke ahead on one of the game's most storied layouts.

This was the fifth U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. The galleries came in anticipation of a win by the likes of a Hogan, who tamed "The Monster" in 1951. They think they got the likes of an Andy North, but upon closer inspection, Jones, with the lowest U.S. Open score ever here, has as much in common with the former as he does the latter.

North won his second U.S. Open title here, but won just one other PGA Tour event. Jones was a dominant player in 1989, when he had three wins. He had nine top-10 finishes over the next two years, then, like Hogan, suffered a vehicular mishap.

Hogan fought back from an auto accident that nearly killed him in his prime. Jones' life wasn't threatened when he was thrown from a dirt-bike on Thanksgiving weekend in 1991, but it %J wrecked a ligament in his left hand. Jones missed all of the 1992 and '93 seasons, and played only two events in 1994, barely earning travel expenses.

"Obviously, my accident wasn't even close to what he went through," Jones said. "I'm not a golf historian, but I just read a book about him, and it inspired me. I baffled a lot of doctors. No one really knew what was wrong with me or how long it was going to take to recover, and that was frustrating."

Jones rebuilt his confidence with a different grip and two top-10 finishes last year, but he still had to go through sectional qualifying to get in a major for the first time in five years. Thirteen days ago, in wet conditions in Columbus, Ohio, Jones needed to one-putt his final hole of regulation and survive a playoff to get here.

"If I had bogeyed the last hole . . .," said Jones, the first sectional qualifier to win the U.S. Open since Jerry Pate 20 years ago.

The champion's comeback got encouragement from a fellow Phoenix resident, Lehman.

"I tried to support him in the years he wasn't playing," Lehman said. "To come back from what he had to go through the last four years and now win the U.S. Open, that is an absolutely remarkable story. He has worked hard to get back, and he showed a lot of guts today."

It wasn't match-play conditions for the final twosome until No. 18, but Jones played off Lehman all day. Lehman had a two-shot lead on Jones at the turn, but there was a four-stroke swing on Nos. 10 and 12. On both holes, Lehman bogeyed and Jones birdied.

Jones bogeyed No. 13 and was a co-leader when Love joined him at 3-under with a birdie on No. 15. Love, regarded as the best American player never to have won a major, bogeyed the last two holes, however, three-putting No. 18 from 20 feet.

"I'm a little closer than I was last year [fourth] and a lot more disappointed," Love said. "In 1987, he [Jones] blew a ball out of bounds at 18 at Harbour Towne and basically gave me my first Tour win. Ever since he came back, I've been pulling for him. It doesn't make my finish any easier, but I am happy for him."

John Morse, the only native of Michigan in the field, was another heartbreak victim, as his even-par 70 was marred by bogeys on 16 and 18 that left him two strokes back.

For Lehman, it was also a bigger disappointment than last year, when he had the lead on the back nine and lost to Corey Pavin. He missed a birdie putt on No. 16, but when Jones bogeyed No. 17, they went to the 72nd hole even.

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