Throughout a lifetime dominated by the game of golf, Grier Jones has witnessed virtually everything from a variety of perspectives.
As an amateur, he won the 1968 NCAA individual title. As a professional, he registered three PGA Tour victories. When his touring days ended, he served as a club professional. And now his final chapter is about to conclude following 24 years as the head men’s golf coach at Wichita State University.
Jones, 72, spent his college days at Oklahoma State University. Then he toured the country competing against the game’s best professionals. So, perhaps, it’s only fitting that his golf career will end where his lifelong love for the game began before he was a teenager: Wichita, Kan.
Jones has watched the game change since he started competing nearly 60 years ago. As a coach, Jones laments that many younger players are spending so much of their time trying to hone their swings in simulators rather than on the course.
“I teach the old way; I don’t use those machines,” he said. “I try to spend more time teaching the kids how to play rather than teaching them to have the perfect swing or the perfect putting stroke.”
Another thing that has changed dramatically is the number of opportunities for junior golfers. In the early 1960s, there was only a handful of big events. Jones qualified for the 1963 U.S. Junior Amateur at Florence (S.C.) Country Club, where he advanced to the quarterfinals. But outside of that championship, the Kansas Amateur and the Kansas Junior Amateur, his summers on the golf course consisted of games with local players at MacDonald Park Golf Course, a public facility that is still in operation today. The option of traveling the country playing in elite junior competitions didn’t exist, so it took some creativity to sharpen that competitive edge. Not that he’s complaining.
“There were a bunch of really good players in Wichita at that time. I’m convinced had it not been for MacDonald Park and those games, I wouldn’t have ever gotten anywhere in golf,” Jones said. “That’s where I learned how to play. They basically took no prisoners. By the time I was 14, me and a friend of mine were playing out there every weekend with the guys. And you either got better or you got broke.”
Jones clearly continued to get better. After twice winning the Kansas State High School Championship, a decorated career at Oklahoma State ensued. His roommate in Stillwater was Mike Holder, who would later coach the Cowboys to eight NCAA titles. He currently is OSU’s athletic director.
Then the PGA Tour came calling, and Jones spent 15 years competing with the best players in the world. His peak years came early, winning PGA Rookie of the Year honors in 1969 and winning twice in 1972. He competed in seven U.S. Opens; his best finish was a tie for 18th in 1975 at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.
But the road eventually wore Jones out. Home was where the father of five wanted to be, and home has never been anywhere but Wichita.
“Unfortunately, I did not like to travel. I did it for 15 years, so I couldn’t have disliked it that much, but that’s eventually why I quit playing,” he said. I got tired of leaving every week, and being away from my family.”
Luckily for Jones, he quickly combined his passion for golf, family and his hometown. He landed a job as the head golf professional at Wichita’s Terradyne Country Club, a course he helped design. He was named the Kansas PGA’s Teacher of the Year in 1995, the same year he was hired to lead program at Wichita State.
In his 24 years at the helm, he has led the Shockers to incredible heights, capturing 15 Missouri Valley Conference titles and the conference’s coach-of-the-year award on 13 occasions. Their NCAA championship appearance in 2003 was the program’s first in 24 years.
His approach may be old school, but there is ample evidence that it has worked. Despite all the changes in the game, his experiences as a young player still pay dividends for him as a coach. His days of navigating those weekend matches at MacDonald Park without a parent or coach by his side clearly stuck with him and molded how he approaches the game.
“I’m on the golf course, and I do what they allow us to do. I’ll help guys from time to time on the par 3s or holes where I know there’s going to be trouble. But it’s always been my philosophy that in golf, you’ve got to learn to do it yourself,” he said. “I basically tell the team, I’m not always going to be around. You’ve got to learn to do this on your own. I’m always going to be around in case you need some help, or you’ve got some questions, but this is you. You’ve got to learn to do this.”
Another thing that definitely hasn’t changed over the years: the wind. If you play golf in Kansas, breezy conditions are the norm. That’s something Jones consistently stresses to his players.
“It’s hot and windy in the summer and it’s cold and windy in the winter,” he said. “There’s places where we go where the wind is blowing 5 miles per hour and we hear the other teams say, mighty, it’s windy today, and we’re going, there’s no wind blowing.”
When it comes to golf, Jones has just about seen it all. And he has managed to do that without ever losing sight of where he came from, or where he always truly wanted to be.
Scott Lipsky is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.