Toledo, Ohio – That his victory in the 1996 U.S. Open earned him an exemption into this week’s U.S. Senior Open represents a bit of geographical coincidence about which Steve Jones is only too happy to be reminded.
A 4-under-par 67 Thursday at Inverness Club was a good opening salvo for Jones in his first U.S. Senior Open. Though he was born in New Mexico, attended college in Colorado, and lived for a time in Arizona before making his home now in Bozeman, Mont., Jones has a certain affinity for Ohio and the upper Midwest.
I like Michigan right up the road, too, Jones said when asked about his good play in this region of the U.S. Michigan's good, Detroit in '96, two times in Canada, way up north of that. Yeah, Midwest, north, west, I like. Good to be back here.
Jones, who has been out of golf the last four years while battling a series of shoulder and elbow injuries, won that 1996 Open just about an hour north of here at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Ohio was the launching pad for that title via sectional qualifying in Columbus, as Jones became the first sectional qualifier since Jerry Pate in 1976 to win the U.S. Open.
And his reference to two times in Canada is a nod to a pair of victories in the Canadian Open (in 1989 and 1997) among his eight career PGA Tour titles.
The last of those wins came 11 years ago at the 1998 John Deere Classic. Jones, 52, has been slowed by injuries for six of the last 10 years with problems that also included an irregular heartbeat. He only began hitting balls again in January, and he made one Champions Tour start this year before trying to recreate a little magic last month by returning to the Columbus sectional qualifier. He did not advance.
I wasn’t ready for a 36-hole day, he said. I was barely ready to play 18.
He’s more prepared now, however, especially after coming off a season-best tie for 16th at the Senior British Open last week at Walton Heath, England.
Yeah, it’s coming. It just takes time, Jones said after making six birdies against two bogeys. Still, Jones felt like he left a few shots on the course, especially because of a balky putter that he used 28 times after hitting 14 greens in regulation. I need a year to really get going, but I really don't have a year, so I've got to try to step it up somehow. You've just got to be patient.
Easier said than done, it seems, for a man playing his fifth event of the season. I haven't played, don't have eligibility. I've got to go to Tour School unless I play in the top 30 or win or something. So it's some urgency there, yeah. I haven't made any money for four years and been injured and now you've got to come back and play against these guys? Are you kidding me? That's a tough row to hoe, I tell you.
At least he’s making the attempt on friendly ground.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.