Over John Elway’s 16-year career with the Denver Broncos, he was best known for leading his team to incredible comebacks.
But the Pro Football Hall of Famer has nothing on Steve Jones, the former University of Colorado golfer and 1996 United States Open champion who has, in his estimation, lost at least a third of his professional career to assorted injuries.
In the last seven months, Jones has been inducted into CU’s Athletic Hall of Fame (in its 2012 class), and in April he became the 44th person associated with the Buffaloes to receive the state’s highest sports honor, induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
But his path to induction certainly wasn’t easy.
|Steve Jones was a 4-time All-Big Eight performer at Colorado|
Growing up in Yuma on the eastern Colorado plains, his parents had a book written in 1961 by C.B. Frick entitled, The Comeback Guy. “I had this book, and I never read it,” Jones said. “But I looked at the cover all the time. It was sitting in there in my house, and the title was stuck in my head. I knew it was about a pole vaulter, so I thought he must have come back from some injury or bad luck. ‘Don’t ever give up, come back,’ I always thought.”
Little did he know how often he would have to reach deep inside and persevere to keep on coming back, not unlike Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky movies.
In 1978 as a freshman in Boulder, early in the spring semester, it was discovered he had an atrial fibrillation, commonly known as an irregular heart rhythm. He would undergo the first of 15 “electrical cardioversion” procedures, which in layman’s terms shocks the heart back into a more normal rhythm. On average, he’s had a cardioversion once every two or three years, his latest this past January 7.
That initial episode turned out to be just a minor blip his first year at CU, and he missed just a few workouts and practices. He remained injury-free throughout his four-year Buff career, where he would average 73.75 strokes per round, still third on the school’s all-time career list for players with 120 or more rounds; he played 141.
His road to become a Buffalo was unique as well. Few people know that he initially committed to New Mexico State. Born in nearby Artesia, a little over 100 miles east of Las Cruces, his father knew the Aggies’ athletic director and had plenty of other connections there. In fact, the family didn’t move to Colorado until Jones was 11. NMSU offered him a full scholarship.
The late Mark Simpson, in his first year as Colorado head coach after replacing the legendary Les Fowler, targeted Jones as his first major recruit and set out to convince him to stay in state. But a full ride at CU was expensive, and most golf scholarships back in the day were awarded on a percentage basis, with hardly anyone getting all expenses covered.
Simpson had enough funds to offer Jones about a 75 percent scholarship for four years, but the money just wasn’t there for Jones, one of seven children, to pay the balance. It looked like his desire to play college golf in the state where he first picked up a golf club was going to be dashed, until a donor of the golf team, Ron Rope, stepped up and committed the other 25 percent of Jones’ scholarship, and for all four years. Jones was a Buffalo.
“My favorite memory at CU was my coach,” Jones recalled. “At the time, I looked at Mark as the coach, but he became much more than that after college. That was really meaningful to me, we became better and better friends as the years went by. That’s the quality of a good coach, they are your mentor and teacher first, and then the relationship changes where you become good friends.”
“We had a great schedule, we flew everywhere, we played a lot of great schools,” Jones said of his days as a Buff. “In the winter, we could hardly ever practice and our games weren’t very good (at the start of spring season), but I really believe it kept us hungry. It kept me more involved in golf going forward; a lot of guys who played in the warmer states got burned out playing 12 months out of the year.
“In the wintertime, we were able to take a break from the game, work on our studies, and then get going again in late January. I think that was a big advantage for me, personally.”
Simpson passed away at the age of 55 from complications due to lung cancer; Jones was one of the featured eulogists at his memorial service in December 2005. Up until the day he died, Jones learned a lot from Simpson that he still draws from today.
“Mark used to tell me, ‘Look, you find a routine that works, and then you stick to it.’ He was always really proud that you would stick to things, your game plan so-to-speak, and that you wouldn’t give up.
“I remember in a tournament as sophomore, I was 8-over par going into the 18th hole in the last round,” he continued. “Mark came over to watch me finish. Though I was going to end up somewhere in the middle of the pack, I still didn’t want to shoot an 80 and had a determined look about me.
“He asked me what was going on and I told him, ‘I’m not shooting an 80.’ Mark said, ‘That’s a good goal. You’re never quitting. Don’t ever, ever quit. Keep trying.’ It was simple, but my parents were the same way, always telling me to “do the best you can, but don’t ever quit.”
Jones birdied that hole, and finished with a 77-78-79—234 scorecard in Texas’ Morris Williams Intercollegiate.
He made it to the finals in Tour Qualifying School in November 1981. After advancing out of the regionals, he visited his brother in Florida where the finals were scheduled. Just ahead of competing in the tournament of his life to that point, he suffered a broken thumb. How? He was playing with his 5-year old niece and she just happened to hit his thumb at just the right angle to cause a break.
Jones actually shrugged that off and finished seventh at Q School, earning is PGA Tour card. He played about half a dozen tournaments in 1982, earning around $2,700, but he could barely swing the club anymore without severe pain in the thumb. Off he went to Columbus, Ga., where the now famous Dr. Jim Andrews performed surgery, which was a success; but he was out for the season.
|Jones was a 1980-81 second-team All-American.|
The next four years, he was reasonably healthy, but because he had limited success on the Tour, he returned to Q School in the fall of 1986, having to earn his card again. He did so in grand style, winning what is often referred to as golf’s “most grueling annual tournament.”
He was 66th on the money list for 1987, playing in 30 events and setting the stage to reach another level of success as the decade was drawing to a close. He would win four times over the next two seasons, but his first was extra special, made so by a surprise in the gallery on Sunday at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
A second round 64 thrust Jones into the lead entering the weekend, and a 70 on Saturday gave him a six shot lead over Bob Tway and in position for victory. In the crowd on Sunday, his college coach, Mark Simpson.
Jones said, “What are you doing here? And Mark answered, ‘I’m here to watch you win your first PGA Tournament.’ And I said something clever like, ‘Really?’ I was excited, pumped.”
It was a wild day: Tway actually caught Jones with a 68 – Jones shot 74 – and the two had to hold off a charging Greg Norman who ended up one shot behind. With Simpson there as a calming influence, Jones sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole and earned his first Tour win, along with a check for $126,000.
The lanky 6-foot-4 kid from Yuma, who took up golf when he was 11 playing the Yuma High Plains Recreation Association 9-hole course (since renamed Indian Hills Golf Course), had won on golf’s biggest stage.
“I was one of the first ‘High Plains Drifter golfers,’” Jones joked, referring to his first golf course’s name and the Clint Eastwood movie.
His career then took off, with three wins in 1989 at the MONY Tournament of Champions, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Canadian Open. His rise had actually coincided with the success of CU’s football team, so much so that he met Hope the same year as Colorado’s three football All-Americans, Joe Garten, Tom Rouen and Alfred Williams.
Disaster struck in November 1991. Jones had a passion for dirt bikes, and that month was in a horrific accident in which he suffered a broken ankle, a separated shoulder and ligament damage to his left ring finger, which turned out to be the worst of the injuries.
He missed three full years on the Tour, not returning to action until 1995. Granted an exemption those years for being injured, he played in 24 events and earned just under $235,000 in his return, placing 79th on the money list. He kept his card, but had to qualify for the majors.
Sunday at the U.S. Open is annually one of the most exciting days in all of sports. And Sunday, June 16, 1996 at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich., was no exception.
Jones already had been battle tested just to qualify. He won the local qualifying in a playoff just to earn the right to advance to sectionals, where he won to make into the 156-man field, which, as a side note, included Tiger Woods playing as an amateur for the final time.
|Jones has overcome numerous injuries to be an 8-time PGA Tour winner.|
Tom Lehman held the third round lead at 2-under par, with Jones in second, one back; Davis Love was two off the pace and just three strokes down were the likes of Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Colin Montgomerie. After seven holes, Lehman extended his lead to three over Jones, who would get one back by birdying 9; the pair, playing in the final twosome, then headed to the back nine.
The final stretch was a rollercoaster, though Jones already had endured one after opening with a 4-over par 74 before a second round 66 brought him back to even and in the hunt.
Jones proceeded to score birdies on 10 and 12, holes Lehman bogeyed; Jones was now up by two with six to play. Meanwhile, Love had pulled even with Lehman, and after Jones bogeyed 13, Love’s birdie on 15 tied him for the lead with Lehman one back with three holes remaining.
Jones and Love bogeyed 17, and on the 18th hole, you had Love on the green and Jones and Lehman on the tee, all tied at 2-under. The possibility of an 18-hole Monday playoff now loomed, though 18 played as the second toughest hole the entire tournament and this Sunday, par was a good score for the day.
Love had a 20-foot putt for birdie that lagged to within three feet, but he missed and made bogey, and it was back to a two man duel.
Lehman’s drive on 18 landed in a bunker; he eventually missed a 15-footer for par. Jones hit his second shot to within 12 feet, and two putted for the win (the second from about 22 inches), thus claiming his first and only major and also becoming the first sectional qualifier to win the Open in 20 years.
The win wasn’t a fluke; there were just 51 rounds under par in the entire Open, and Jones was the only player with three – just four others managed two. His average drive went 279 yards, he hit 50 greens in regulation and hit 41 fairways, all top 10 numbers for the week.
“One thing I remember from that whole week was I had just read the (Ben) Hogan book, and what I got from that book was one shot at a time,” Jones said. “That’s what I needed, to play golf one shot at a time. Your next shot is the most important shot you’ll ever hit. You need to concentrate on what is in the moment, it doesn’t matter what you just did. It sounds easy, but it is hard to do. All the best players do it.”
He won twice more in 1997, in his now hometown Phoenix Open and the Bell Canadian Open. He won for the last of eight times overall on the PGA Tour in 1998 (Quad Cities Open), and overall enjoyed a successful career. He earned over $6.5 million after making the cut in 279 tournaments, which included 116 top 25 finishes and 44 in the top 10. His top finish on the money list was eighth in 1989, becoming the sport’s 99th millionaire that year.
Golfers naturally wind down a bit on the PGA Tour as they enter their forties, but look to the Champions Tour to ratchet things up again when they become eligible for it when they turn 50. It was no different for Jones, except ...
He developed “tennis” elbow, enduring the limitations it caused his right arm in 2002, and underwent surgery for it in 2003; he would miss the next three seasons, returning to the Tour in 2005 at age 47. He played in 20 events and finished 216th on the money list that year, and entered 27 tournaments in 2006, placing 175th on the list but still earning over $308,000.
|Jones, the 1996 U.S. Open Champion, celebrates his signature win.|
He played in nine events on the front end of 2007, but had developed the same injury in his left elbow. He had surgery that summer, followed by another shoulder surgery in 2008, and then a left rotator cuff operation in 2009, when he had planned to make his debut on the Champions Tour. But that had to wait two more years.
And by the way, he had surgery in 2003 that cauterized parts of the heart muscle that cause erratic electrical signals. He is considering another operation after this season so he can get off the medication he’s been on for 15 years.
“The irony is I’ve had all these issues with elbows, shoulders, fingers, thumbs and ankles, but I’ve never missed any golf because of my heart,” Jones said.
Jones finally made his debut on the senior circuit in 2011, but did not have his card and relied on sponsor exemptions for the most part. He teed off in 10 events, making the cut in all, but was down the list in earnings with just over $123,000. He made 11 of 12 cuts the next year, but wasn’t high enough on the money list to earn his full-time card. Back to qualifying school.
Unfortunately, the dates for Champions’ Q School conflicted directly with his Hall of Fame induction at CU.
“I really wanted to get back to Boulder, especially looking at who went into the Hall in that class,” Jones said. “All-Americans, Olympians, our Heisman winner. But I’ve basically been hurt 10 years, or a third of my professional career. This is my living, I had to be in Florida.”
Jones shot 4-under for four rounds, tied for 11th and earned conditional Champions Tour status for 2013, meaning in the end he will likely be eligible for most tournaments. And he still has exempted status for a couple of regular PGA Tour events, in which he’s played in two so far in addition to four Champions tournaments.
He is very humble about his induction into the two Halls.
“Even though I was born in New Mexico and have lived in Arizona for over 25 years, Colorado is where my career started,” Jones said. “This state has special meaning to me. My parents and four brothers still live here.
“Unfortunately for the first one (induction into CU’s), I didn’t get to attend the ceremony on campus and in Boulder to enjoy that,” he said. “I didn’t want that to happen again, so even though I’m missing a (Champions) tournament, it’s well worth it to come back for the second one. Both are obviously great honors.
“I do have to say that it feels very strange to be getting these awards when I haven’t been playing my best golf since the injuries. I don’t know really know the criteria, but I never thought I would get into the state’s Hall of Fame. I wasn’t even thinking down that road for either to be honest.”
Jones credited several others for his success. “Obviously, Dale Douglass did it, Hale Irwin did it. That motivated me, along those lines of if they can do it, I can do it. It was a combination of people, Simps, my parents, those alums, the head pro at Flatirons who taught me how to hit a bunker shot. Together it all worked for me.”
The question is: when did Jones realize himself that he could make a living playing the sport he loved?
“When I was 11, I had it in my heart that I wanted to be a professional golfer,” he recalled. “It was snowing in Yuma, think it was January, and I remember watching golf on TV. The tournament was somewhere warm, I want to say Hawai’i, and I thought that is what I want to do.
“I started playing Yuma’s nine hole course and I thought I wasn’t bad, but I really didn’t know. When I was 16 or 17, I was playing a round with Allen Miller (a PGA Tour player at the time who had been the nation’s second-ranked amateur right around Jones’ age) and he told me, ‘You hit the ball far enough, you just need to hit it straighter.’ That was a confidence boost.”
|Jones at the dedication ceremony for the Colorado National Golf Course in Erie in 2009.|
As a high school graduation present, his mother gave him a new set of clubs which they selected from Capital Golf in Denver; the proprietor was Bill Bisdorf, a big name in state golf circles at the time.
“He recommended I use Wilson Staff irons after saying to me, ‘You have a really good downswing.’ That was encouraging and also motivated me. And he was right about those irons. I used them all through college and my rookie year on the Tour and only switched to new ones after they were stolen.
“I was fortunate. I had so many positive people around me, and there’s a lesson in that,” Jones said.
“It’s why it is really important for parents and coaches to say the right things. They stick with you your whole life. If anyone ever said anything negative about my golf game, I either don’t remember it or blocked it out. But it’s the positive things, the little phrases that I remember to this day.”
Despite the sometimes rocky road he has traveled, when pressed for an answer on if he had any regrets or if he could do one thing over again, he really couldn’t come up with anything.
“I guess you could say the dirt bike accident, but a lot of people actually remember me for that,” he said. “The media, fans, they’d say, ‘That’s the guy who came back from that to win the U.S. Open.’” He did win the Comeback Player of the Year honor, named for Hogan, for 1996.
“I possibly could have practiced harder, or been in better shape, but I’ve always thought I did what I had to do,” he added. “I never revamped my golf swing, but that’s not always a guarantee that you’re going to win or even play better. So maybe it would be to have a really good teacher in high school or on the Tour. Nowadays they are common, but personal teachers weren’t as popular as they are today when I was starting out.”
In CU golf history, he remains first in career top 10 finishes with 19, second in top 20 efforts with 26 (a mark he held for 18 years), and tied for fourth in top 5 finishes with 10. He was one of a very small group of players to finish in the top 10 in four Big 8 Conference championships, and in his case, all in the top seven as he was third twice and seventh twice.
“Steve epitomizes what it means to be a Buffalo,” current CU head coach Roy Edwards said. “Colorado kid. A great player while here, and has gone on to have a tremendous professional career. Steve has given generously to the golf program throughout his adult life, not just financially, but with his time and general positive support.
“He has always been a guy who has asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ and is clearly grateful for the opportunities CU afforded him. He has been a special asset to the University of Colorado since that day he decided to be a Buff.”
Jones and his wife Bonnie have been married for 26 years. Their two children have always been active in sports; son Cy is just out of college, occasionally caddies for his dad and wants to be an actor, and daughter Stacey is a sophomore volleyball player at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, Calif., and aspires to be in sports broadcasting. As for Jones himself, he has no plans to give up the game anytime soon.
“We’re all meant to do certain things, and I honestly believe I was meant to be a golfer,” Jones proclaimed. “I’m still playing four decades after I fell in love with the game, and my goal is to play competitively until I am least 60 on the Champions Tour. Hale is an inspiration for that as well.”
And that Comeback Guy book that is still in his parent’s house, which he finally picked up to read five or six years ago when home for Christmas. “I always thought it was about a pole vaulter making some kind of a comeback, but it was more about a cheerleader,” Jones said. “But that cover still means everything to me.”