LINKS LETTER, DECEMBER 1996

‘EVERYTHING JUST FELL INTO PLACE’

By Steve Jones

In 1993, I was sitting in Phoenix, Arizona, with Jim Hiskey doing an interview for the Links Letter. I’d been off the Tour for over a year after flipping my dirt bike and severely injuring my left ring finger.

The healing process was extremely slow and my future on the PGA Tour was in question.

“What if your finger doesn’t heal?” Jim asked in his bold style. “Or what if you go back to the Tour and you don’t make it?”

“I’m not sure,” I responded honestly. “I really don’t have a plan for the next twenty years if I’m not playing golf. But I know that God will lead me somewhere I’m supposed to be. And that’s what’s important.”

I was sure God would lead me where He wanted me to be. I just never thought it’d be at Oakland Hills Country Club with the U.S. Open trophy in my arms.

After being in limbo for nearly three years waiting for my finger to heal, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I returned to the Tour. It was a year and a half before I felt like I was playing decent. Even then, I wasn’t sure I had the guts to win again on the PGA Tour. I wasn’t sure I could win any tournament, let alone a major championship.

But when my last putt dropped on the 18th hole at Oakland Hills, everything fell into place, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. All sorts of influences—some big, some small—came together to produce my first major victory.

When I was laid up after the accident, I thought a lot about why it happened. I recalled the many years I skied the slopes of Colorado. I fell down hundreds of times but never came close to getting hurt. Then all of a sudden, out on a motorcycle for the second time, I slam on the brakes to avoid running over my friend, flip my bike, and wind up with half a dozen injuries. Not the least of these were the torn ligaments in my left ring finger that yanked me away from a successful career on the Tour. As I pondered the freakiness of the accident, I received a number of letters from friends and fans trying to encourage me. They would often quote Romans 8:28, “…God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

That’s a great verse. I totally believe it’s true. And a lot of things came out of my time off the Tour. Who knows, it may have even contributed in some way to winning the Open. Then again, I might have won two U.S. Opens if I hadn’t hurt my finger. You just never know. The main thing is, I believed that whatever happens, God will make it work “for good.”

This principle was clearly illustrated a couple weeks before the U.S. Open. I shot 71-77 in the first two rounds of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, and missed the cut by one shot. I was discouraged. But then I thought, There must be a reason for this. Maybe I’m supposed to be in church on Sunday instead of playing in this tournament. Sure enough, I was definitely supposed to be in church. The pastor preached on 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” He hammered the point that if you don’t have the “power of God” in your life, something must be wrong.

That message was for me. I didn’t feel like I had the power of God in my life—not like I did years before. I didn’t feel like I had a real peace in my life. I knew what I had to do. I immediately prayed, repenting of some things that I’d been holding on to—things I knew God didn’t want in my life that were robbing me of that peace.

It was like starting over again. I felt a renewing in my life and a confidence that the Lord will always work things out.

The next day I was slated to play in the 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier near Columbus, Ohio, but heavy Monday rains pushed the event to Tuesday. Under clearing skies, I shot 67-74. A par on the last hole put me in a playoff—11 players for 10 spots—where I secured my position in the U.S. Open.

Since that Sunday in church, I felt like a new person. No matter what happened—or what was going to happen—I was at peace. And that’s how it was on the golf course too. No matter how I played, I knew I’d done my best and I could move on. There was no reason to get frustrated over a golf game.

Sure, golf is just a game. But it’s also my job. So it’s OK for golf to hold a position of importance in my life and to treat it seriously. But if that’s what’s driving my life, that’s wrong. God needs to drive my life. Not a golf game.

God used something bad—my missing the cut at the Memorial—for good in my life. It also turned out to be one of the many pieces of the puzzle in winning the Open two weeks later.

Another piece was a book that a friend sent me a week before the tournament. It was a biography on Ben Hogan, simply titled Hogan, written by Curt Sampson.

Hogan won the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills after recovering from a horrible car crash. I thought it would help to read it before I played. It did. I couldn’t put the book down. I read for three days and finished on Wednesday.

My accident wasn’t anywhere near as bad as his. He almost died. But I learned something very valuable from the book. When Hogan played golf, he was always trying to make birdie. He really knew how to focus on the shot at hand and not worry about anything else.

I copied that.

It sounds crazy, but I just kept telling myself what Hogan said, Focus on each shot and don’t worry about the outcome.

I honestly don’t think I could have won the U.S. Open without reading that book. That piece of the puzzle fit perfectly with the others.

Also part of the picture was the great family we stayed with during the week of the Open. My wife, Bonnie, and our two children stayed with the family of a good friend of mine in Detroit. The warmth and pleasure of their home was relaxing and kept my feet on the ground.

One of the final pieces of my U.S. Open puzzle came in the form of Tom Lehman, my close friend and, ironically, the man in the best position to win the tournament. He led by one shot at the start of the day.

As we headed down the first fairway together, Tom walked up beside me and said a prayer. He prayed for our day of competition, that the Lord would be glorified no matter what the outcome. I thought that was neat. It really helped calm me down.

Then on the sixteenth hole, Tom did it again.

Trailing me by one shot, he quoted a Scripture verse to me—Joshua 1:9—as we marched down the fairway together.

“The Lord wants us to be strong and courageous,” Tom said with a smile. “That’s the will of God.”

He was saying the right words for both of us. And it really got me thinking.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I responded, feeling a little more calm than before.

It turns out, Tom was the one who was strong and courageous. He gunned it straight over the water at 16, then lipped out the birdie putt. Then he almost hit the stick on the par-3 seventeenth, I bogeyed, and were left tied for the lead. Then Tom hit a super, 300-yard drive off the tee at eighteen. But it took a bad hop and went into the trap.

I was just hanging on.

For Tom to encourage me the way he did was really no surprise to me. That’s the Tom I know. I wouldn’t expect anything different.

I don’t think anyone was more happy than I was when Tom won the British Open five weeks later. I missed the cut and got back on Saturday night. On Sunday, I watched the whole tournament. I guarantee I was more nervous watching from my living room than Tom was the whole day.

Tom’s words and friendship along with some key shots and a steady putter were the last pieces of the puzzle to drop into place. The picture it created was a dream come true. There I was holding the trophy from of the 96th United States Open Championship.

Looking back, it’s as if I was given hundreds of little jigsaw puzzle pieces—from missing the cut at the Memorial to being paired with Tom Lehman—without knowing what picture they would form in the end. Or if they would even fit together. But I knew that no matter how oddly shaped the pieces were, God would use them for my good.

In the countless interviews that followed the Open, I often said of my victory at Oakland Hills that I was in the right place at the right time. But that’s only because God put me there.

Many people would say that when my motorcycle flew end-over-end on that dusty dirt bike trail in Arizona, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if I’m really allowing God to drive my life, then I have to believe something different.

Whether I’m laid up for three years with an injured finger or I’m using all ten fingers to hoist up the U.S. Open trophy, there’s no doubt that wherever I am, I’m always right where God wants me to be.

COPYRIGHT 1996 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Steve Jones

    8 PGA Tour Wins (includes one major): 1988 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, 1989 MONY Tournament of Champions, 1989 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, 1989 Canadian Open, 1996 United States Open, 1997 Phoenix Open, 1997 Bell Canadian Open, 1998 Quad City Classic