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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN

Spoils of Victory

Defending champion: For Jones, a one-foot putt at Oakland Hills a year ago was followed by a long--and certainly not trouble-free--drive to Montana.

June 12, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unraveling began quickly, almost as soon as the 18-inch putt dropped on the 72nd hole of last year's U.S. Open. In relays, people pulled on the string that is his life, some yanking hard, some giving a brief tug, all trying to see what was at the core. . . .

"Uh, you're from Colorado and you were hurt, when? And it was a motorcycle, no a dirt bike, right? In 1991, right? And would you tell me about that grip, something about a reverse-overlap or some such?"

Victory in a major golf tournament has a cost that carries far beyond four days of birdies and pars. The price of admission to the House of Lore is high, and when bogeys by Tom Lehman and Davis Love III on the 18th hole at Oakland Hills made par good enough to win, the door opened and the turnstile clanked for . . . Steve Jones?

"It was a dirt bike, right? And it kept you off the tour for three years? And it's called a reverse-overlap grip?"

"The hardest thing I had to deal with was everybody wanted to do something," says Jones, relaxed now with the probable end of his reign in sight.

"So many people wanted to do personal interviews, and when you have 50 people wanting to do personal interviews within a two-week time span, and not even to mention your normal stuff you have to do, and your normal reservations, and your normal phone calls and your normal life, and you add on the stuff at the course and all these personal interviews [in which] people want you to call them and talk for 30 minutes, it's just, well, you can't really do it.

"I tried to fulfill all my obligations as quickly as I could, and I called a lot of people those first two weeks. The second week I was out, I told my wife to just take the kids and go home because I have so much to do on the road."

Over and over, the same questions and answers, few probes, everyone wanting exclusivity and getting exclusive sameness. Fifteen minutes of fame turning into 15 days and weeks, 12 months before the next candidate steps up.

The last five U.S. Open winners had not won a major before, and they haven't won one since. All have had to answer the question of ignominy: Were their wins flukes? Will they join Andy North? Orville Moody? Curtis Strange, who won in 1988 and '89, and whose game then turned toward Antarctica?

Their brethren include Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 British Open winner who shortly thereafter averaged $76 a tournament for two years of PGA Tour and worldwide play and who didn't make a cut from 1995 until this year.

For a few, a major is a threshold to greatness. For many, it's a step into the abyss.

For Steve Jones, it's an accident.

"I kind of stumbled on a biggie," he says.

"I've always had a stair-step or escalator career. I started to play at 11, and I was never a great 11-year-old. And I was never great as a junior. And I was never a great amateur and never a great pro. But my career has just steadily gotten better as I've gotten older, until the time I got injured. And then in '95 . . . I started stair-stepping again and then the Open got in the way."

The experience started quickly. The next tournament, he stood on the first tee in Memphis and heard, "On the tee, from Phoenix, winner of the U.S. Open, Steve Jones." On the tournament's 72nd hole, he finished his final round of 73, ending up dead last among those who made the cut.

The British Open was another accident, a reward . . . and punishment.

"I wasn't going, but the guy said they had one exemption and that was for the U.S. Open champion, so I went," Jones says. "I missed the cut there, missed cut at the PGA and didn't do well at the International. At the World Series, I had chance to play well and didn't. Missed the cut at the Canadian Open."

He talks like a marathon runner, softly saying, "I hit the wall.

"I watched one hour of TV in four months, from the end of June, July, August and September. I didn't know what was going on in the world, basically, because I just didn't have time."

He was still the U.S. Open champion, and the questions still came:

"Let's see, you came from Colorado, right? And you were off the tour for three years? And it was a dirt-bike accident injury? And that grip, the reverse-overlap. . . ."

And along came a Tiger.

"I finally started feeling a little breathing room when Tiger Woods came out," Jones says. "Everybody switched their focus from me to him, and all of the questions were, 'What do you think of Tiger? What do you think of Tiger?' Instead of me winning the U.S. Open, it was, 'What do you think of Tiger?' I just wish he had come out a couple of months earlier."

Two weeks after Woods joined the PGA Tour at Milwaukee, fresh from his third consecutive win in the U.S. Amateur, Jones tied for third at Quad Cities. He took some time off and then enjoyed the spoils of being the U.S. Open champion, making money in South Africa, London, Taiwan, Tokyo, all the time playing as Steve Jones, U.S. Open champion.

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