Professional golfers know all about confidence-building techniques like positive imaging and macho posturing, but at the MONY Tournament of Champions in Carlsbad, Calif., last week, rawboned Steve Jones struck a convincing blow for the dying art of self-effacement; he effaced the entire field as well, with a nine-under-par 69-69-72-69-279 to finish three strokes ahead of Jay Haas and David Frost, who tied for second. And Jones did it on a cold, damp and very long La Costa Country Club course. He swung ugly and blew on his hands, but he blew very few putts.
"I was looking at the leader board on TV last night," he said after his victory, "and it was filled with names like Wadkins and Crenshaw and Lyle. Then I saw Jones on top, and I started laughing. I mean, Jones!"
Steve is not a descendant of Bobby, but he did win the A T & T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last year with the same kind of perseverance that rewarded him at La Costa. The T of C may feature a limited field, and maybe a lot of players were just warming up for the new year, but no one was throwing asparagus at the 30-year-old Jones, even if he did hit more than a few drives into the stuff. "It's like an 'any given Sunday' thing," said Haas, who chipped in for birdies on the last two holes. "Steve is very long, and he knows how to win."
That's what the T of C is all about. This year it brought together 32 winners from the '88 PGA Tour—only Seve Ballesteros, who chose to honeymoon with his bride, Carmen, didn't show—and, for a separate but simultaneous tournament, 14 champs from the Senior PGA Tour. Absent on the senior side were Gary Player, who stayed home in South Africa, and leading money-winner Bob Charles, who was recovering from a hernia he may have suffered hauling in the record $533,929 he won on last year's senior circuit.
The Tour players were still basking in the afterglow of a vintage season. As Ben Crenshaw put it, "1988 was the year of great players asserting themselves. In golf we must be patient and wait for great players to rise at big moments. Last year it happened three times: Sandy Lyle at the Masters, Curtis Strange at the U.S. Open and Ballesteros at the British Open."
Strange was the most assertive of all, becoming the first player to win more than $1 million on the PGA Tour in a year. Lean and hungry by nature, Strange looks at last season as a stepping stone rather than as a promontory. "I like where I am, but if I work hard I can still improve," he said. "That's what's great about starting the year at La Costa. You walk on the practice tee with the winners from last year and you realize they are also the hardest workers. It reminds me that if I don't work to get better and keep what I have, these guys will take it from me in a heartbeat."
Alas, Strange went out on his first hole of the year and four-putted from 20 feet for a double bogey on his way to a 77. "I had to get used to playing with that knot in my stomach again," he said. By Friday he was used to it, and he shot a 70-69-71 to finish 10th.
While Strange was enjoying his prime, Arnold Palmer, 59, was a lion in winter. In Friday's second round, Palmer and his playing partner, Harold Henning, were each penalized two shots for hitting from the back tee on the second hole, instead of the forward one designated for the senior players. Neither Palmer nor Henning was aware that he was hitting from the wrong tee, which was 20 yards behind the seniors' marker. Afterward, Palmer raged that he was "as close as I've ever come to just hiking to the clubhouse."
It wasn't just the penalty that made Palmer roar. His macho sensibilities were offended because the seniors were playing a course that was set up 207 yards shorter than the one for the younger guys. Palmer is opposed to concessions to age. "Give them golf carts and petticoats and let them play," he said sarcastically after Friday's round.
That drew a laugh from most of Palmer's less prideful contemporaries, who decided their leader deserved a ribbing for laying it on a little thick. On Saturday, Palmer opened his locker and three copies of the Rules of Golf fell out. And on the practice tee, Chi Chi Rodriguez slipped a petticoat over his pants. "You can use my cart today," Rodriguez contritely told Palmer. "I'm following your orders and walking."
But Palmer's argument that seniors didn't need a crutch was validated by 57-year-old Miller Barber, who followed a 67 on Friday with a 68 on Saturday. In the final round, he needed a par at 18 to tie Dale Douglass and force a playoff. Instead, Barber chipped in for a birdie to win. Barber's victory was worth $50,000, and his total of 280 was only one stroke higher than Jones's.
The winning senior has never had a better score than the PGA Tour winner in the six years the two groups have played together at the T of C. Said Al Geiberger, "I think the reason they give us different tees is that if one of us happens to beat some younger players, they have an excuse."
"Another senior shooting a lower score might bother some guys, but Miller is the exception," said Crenshaw. "He is amazing. He is as strong as an ox. And the conditions here favor a strong golfer."
The 6'4", 185-pound Jones is certainly strong of body, and the way he recovered from errant drives at La Costa proved he is also strong of mind. By Saturday he was so shaky with his driver that he used it only five times, once hitting 65 yards offline from the 17th tee into a creek. "I'm hitting my driver so bad," he said after the round, "the manufacturer may ask me not to use it on television tomorrow."
Jones was also aware that none of the leaders had caught fire in the first three rounds. "Maybe it's because it's the first tournament, but nobody has lit it up," said Jones, who took a two-shot lead over Crenshaw and Lanny Wadkins into the final round. "Everybody is kind of hanging around."
On Sunday morning, Jones's wife, Bonnie, read that quote and said, "Hey, why don't you light it up?" Steve replied, "Oh, O.K.., that would be fun."
It was. Jones made six birdies, including a chip-in at the 9th that brought him to nine under par and gave him a three-shot lead. When it was over, he thanked his putter, hugged his wife and grabbed the first prize of $135,000. "It was my week," said Jones.
Indeed it was. And at least for now, on the PGA Tour it is going to mean something to keep up with the Joneses.