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Pebble Beach National Pro-Amateur : Steve Jones May Be Without His Good-Luck Charm

Times Staff Writer

It would be no surprise if Steve Jones has already made arrangements for his former golf coach, Mark Simpson, to be with him for the National Pro-Amateur tournament starting here today.

Simpson, who coached Jones at the University of Colorado, has been a good-luck charm for his protege.

When Jones won here last year in a playoff with Bob Tway for his first PGA Tour victory, Simpson was in the gallery.

Simpson also followed Jones around the last 4 holes of the final round of the Tournament of Champions in La Costa earlier this month. Jones won.

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A week later in Palm Desert, Simpson was with Jones for all 5 rounds of the Bob Hope Classic, which Jones won in a sudden death playoff with Paul Azinger and Sandy Lyle.

Jones, however, was on his own at the Phoenix Open last week. Simpson stayed home and Jones, who lives in Phoenix, didn’t make the cut.

Nonetheless, by winning the first 2 tour events, Jones matched the accomplishment of Gil Morgan, who started fast in 1983 with victories in the Tucson and Los Angeles tournaments.

If Jones doesn’t win another tournament the rest of the year, he still won’t be hurting financially. His victories were worth $315,000, or $73,123 more than he earned in 25 tour events in 1988.

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The sudden emergence of the 30-year-old Jones as a factor on the tour could be linked, Simpson said, to his embracing Christianity.

During his rounds and after his wins at La Costa and Palm Desert, Jones opened the press conferences with brief statements on his religious beliefs.

“I know a lot of people don’t want to hear me talk about my religion,” Jones said after winning the Hope tournament. “But I’m going to keep talking about it every chance I get.

“I used to be a boozer and I didn’t care about anyone else 5 years ago. People who knew me will tell you that.”

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Simpson confirmed that Jones was, indeed, difficult to deal with at one time.

“He was a partyer in college and in turmoil with himself,” Simpson said. “We had a lot of heart-to-heart talks. He wasn’t easy to get along with.”

Simpson recalled that Jones decided in 1984 to change his life style through religion.

“As I remember it, he was at a tournament in South America with a buddy,” Simpson said. “They got back to their hotel and were drunk and were messing around with women.

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“Steve said to himself, ‘If I’m going to play professional golf, I’m going to have to get rid of this stuff.’ ”

Jones later became acquainted with Paul Westphal, the former USC All-American guard and National Basketball Assn. star of the Phoenix Suns.

“He had already become a Christian by the time I met him,” said Westphal, now an assistant coach with the Suns, who was coaching at Southwestern Bible College in Phoenix at the time.

“However, I did introduce him to his future wife, Bonnie. She was a cheerleader at the college and used to baby-sit for my kids.

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“I told him, ‘Steve, I want you to meet your future wife.’ I really didn’t believe it at the time, but it worked out.”

Westphal recalls that Jones was enthusiastic about his conversion to Christianity.

Simpson added: “After about a month, he was really into it, preaching to everybody and trying to get everybody to convert. It was exciting to him because he finally had some peace in his life.”

Simpson said that he first watched Jones play when Jones tried to qualify for the U.S. Open in 1976.

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“His fundamentals were bad and he shot an 84 on the first day,” Simpson said. “But he came back with a 72 on a really tough course.”

Jones was Simpson’s first recruit at Colorado in 1977.

“I gave him a full ride and, in college golf, that’s almost unheard of,” Simpson said. “In his last 2 years in college, he was a second-team All-American. His fundamentals were still bad, but he scored in important tournaments.”

Jones qualified for the PGA Tour in 1982, but had to quit in June of that year because of an injured left thumb that required surgery.

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“That had to be the lowest point of his life because of his dream to be on the Tour,” Simpson said. “He knew his thumb was killing him, but he still got after it. He shouldn’t have been playing at all.”

Simpson said there were other low points for Jones, such as finishing 129th and 136th on the money lists in 1985 and 1986, barely missing an exemption priority of the top 125.

However, he fared better in 1987. He finished 66th in money, earning $154,918.

Last year, he moved up to 45th, earned $241,877, and got his first Tour win here.

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Simpson said that perseverance is one of Jones’ main assets.

“He’ll never give up until you beat him on the 18th hole,” Simpson said. “That was evident at the Hope tournament. He shot a 76 the first day and he wasn’t feeling good. He told his wife Bonnie that he wanted to win back-to-back tournaments very badly.

“Then, on the fourth round, he shoots a 63 at Eldorado. He started out the back nine eagle, birdie, birdie. It was the closest I’ve ever seen anyone come to breaking 60.”

Jones had another 63 a week ago in the pro-am event preceding the Phoenix Open.

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He shot a 68 on the first day of the tournament, but couldn’t sustain his drive in the second round, slumping to a 79.

“I 3-putted the second, third and fourth holes and the air just went out of me,” said Jones, who added that he had had to unplug his phone before the tournament because of so many requests for interviews. “But I have no excuses,” Jones said. “I just burned out.”

When he was asked if there was a sense of relief that the pressure of his 2-tournament winning streak is now over, Jones smiled and said:

“I would have liked to win 3, 4, 5 or more (in a row),” he said.

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To some degree, Jones is a self-taught player.

“He learned to play by reading magazines and then experimenting,” Simpson said. “He had no formal instruction at all when he was young. But he knew he wanted to play on the tour when he was 12 years old.”

Simpson said that he’ll most likely miss the tournament here because of his coaching responsibilities in Boulder.

Jones said he may persuade Simpson to change his mind.

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“If I make the cut here, I’m going to call him.”

Golf Notes

Atypical weather is forecast for the 4-day tournament, meaning no rain and temperatures in the high 60s, or low 70s. . . . The tournament purse is $1 million, with first place worth $180,000. Three courses, Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Cypress Point, will be used the first 3 days, with the final round played at Pebble Beach. . . . Mark Calcavecchia is confident, coming off his 7-stroke victory in the Phoenix Open. “I’m not changing anything in my game this week,” he said. “The main thing probably will be keeping my concentration because I’m playing so good.” Calcavecchia had a 2-stroke lead going into the final round of the Bob Hope tournament. However, he shot a 72 for a 344, winding up a stroke behind Steve Jones, Paul Azinger and Sandy Lyle, who were involved in a playoff. Calcavecchia said he won’t play it safe here. “If I’m standing on 18th tee at Pebble Beach Sunday with a 1-stroke lead, I’ll be swinging a driver.” In his last 8 rounds, Calcavecchia has been over 68 just once.

Jack Nicklaus, who isn’t as active on the tour as he once was, is in the field. “I haven’t forgotten how to win,” Nicklaus said. “I just don’t get into contention much anymore.” Nicklaus, who has been bothered by back problems, is spurning the option of surgery. “It’s like the old joke. If I knew I’d hold up so long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Nicklaus is taking care of himself here with stretching exercises. . . . The format for the tournament is for each pro to play with an amateur partner in a foursome through 4 rounds. Nicklaus is paired with his amateur son, Steve, a former football player at Florida State. . . . Actor Jack Lemmon is paired with Peter Jacobsen in the same foursome with his actor son, Chris. Lemmon, who said he has been playing in this tournament since 1964, is dedicated to making the cut for the first time. “Twenty-five is the magic number,” he said, referring to his years in the tournament. “The first step is to make the cut, then the next one is to win it.”

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