Through its 38-year history, the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am, the longest continuously contested professional golf tournament in Kansas, has provided the launching pad to successful careers on the PGA Tour for many golfers.
Among those are well-known names as Jim Furyk (1992, missed cut), Lee Janzen (1989, Tie 5th), Stewart Cink (1995, Tie 5th), Bob Tway (1982, 4th), Gary Woodland (2008, 1st), and most recently Kelly Kraft (2012, 1st).
When Tom Weiskopf made his lone appearance in 1983 at the Pro-Am, he was already an established PGA star and major champion. Bruce Vaughan, a four-time Pro-Am champion, captured the 2008 Senior (British) Open Championship, but never sustained a successful career on the regular PGA Tour. Furyk, Janzen, Cink and Tway
Among those elite and well-known names, though, is one golfer who stands taller than the rest.
Woodland won the Pro-Am in 2008, his first professional victory, while Furyk and Janzen have each won the U.S. Open (Janzen twice). Tway has captured the PGA Championship while Cink won the (British) Open Championship.
And then there is Steve Jones.
Jones also is a major champion, having won the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich. And like Woodland, has finished atop the leaderboard at the Pro-Am, but not just his first pro win in 1983, but also his second a year later.
To this day, nearly four decades after the Pro-Am began, Steve Jones is the only back-to-back winner of the tournament. That's what separates himself from all the other major champions and former winners in the Pro-Am is his consecutive crowns.
These days, one can find Jones, a rare entrant on the PGA Champions Tour due to injuries, residing in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he also works for Dynamic Water, a company that deals in cooling tower technologies. In between his work duties, he finds time to play in about five to 10 Champions Tour events.
“It’s certainly different to be answering emails and making phone calls and setting up appointments,” Jones said recently in a telephone interview from his vacation retreat in Montana, his home away from home. “I get to play two to three times a week.”
Jones remembers fondly his two-year battles at Buffalo Dunes and (now) The Golf Club at Southwind.
In 1983, he outdueled a trio of golfers — Jim Blair of Utah, and two fellow Coloradoans, R.W. Eakes and Skip Treadway — to win the $10,000 purse by shooting a closing 4-under-par 67 at Southwind to win by two shots over the three opponents.
“I remember the wind blowing and that we had the incredible treat of playing on some of the best greens I had ever seen,” Jones said. “The courses were challenging and when I look back, it was something I gained from it that helped me to attain greater things in the future.”
Jones said it had been vitally important to him to learn how to win as he moved on to the next stage of his career, the PGA Tour. He had already played on the Tour one season, 1981, but an injury sidelined him in 1982 and he lost his Tour card, thus his resulting appearance in Garden City in 1983 and 1984.
“This was a stepping stone in the right direction for me,” Jones stated. “I had busted my thumb in 1981 and I started my comeback the next year.”
Jones said he likely might never have played in the Pro-Am had it not been for a push from his father, who worked for Zimmatic irrigation and had western Kansas in his sales area.
“He knew all the farmers and they had mentioned the tournament to him, so he encouraged me to play,” Jones recalled. “It’s one of my favorite memories and my brother still has that big check back home in Yuma (Colo.). I was there recently to visit and he still had it.”
In that 1983 season, Jones said he put together a strong month of playing in some of those summer tour events.
He won Garden City, Minot, N.D. and Riverton, Wyo., before placing second at another pro event in Fargo, N.D.
“Back then, the pressure was one of the biggest because you pretty much had to win to get a good paycheck,” Jones said. “It was kind of weird because you’d flip-flop sponsors, but I remember being able to pay everybody back, and some of those were good friends of my dad. It was certainly nice to have people helping you.”
His return to southwest Kansas and the Pro-Am proved just as successful and exciting as his first venture into the state to compete.
A final round 6-under-par 65 at Southwind bested Wichitan Rod Nuckolls by a shot (10-under 206 to 9-under 207) as Nuckolls closed with a 66 in a big shootout.
“I just remember how windy it was, but also that I putted really well,” Jones said. “I never would have made it out on Tour if I hadn’t putted well. The thing out on Tour is that everybody hits the ball pretty well, so it’s the really good putters who win. And they usually earn most of their money in a six to eight week period.”
While the pair of Pro-Am victories are etched into his memory bank, it will always be the ’96 Open at Oakland Hills that remains his ultimate accomplishment.
“It was one of my better weeks of striking the ball,” he said. “I think on the Saturday round, I had like 25-26 putts and that saved me. It gave me a chance on Sunday.”
Three birdies in a four-hole stretch of Nos. 9 through 12 on the final round enabled Jones to be in position to win his first, and only major title.
“You dream it as a kid when you’re out playing with your friends and you tell yourself that this putt is for the U.S. Open,” Jones said. “You get to that final hole, the final putt, and somehow find a way to make it. I think walking off the green I was in such a daze that I don’t really remember too much.”
If there is any regret in Jones’ career, it would be the injuries he sustained through the years.
“I’ve been out here 35 years playing professional golf, and I would guess I’ve been hurt about 12 of those years,” he said. “So i’ve been injured or something’s been wrong for one-third of my career. That’s been a little tough.”
The latest comeback was knee surgery late in 2017 that limited his playing early this year and kept him from playing in the U.S. Senior Open at the Broadmoor East Golf Club in Colorado Springs earlier this summer.
“I really can’t play and walk 18 holes anymore, so there will be a few events later this year in which I can ride a cart,” Jones said. “I don’t like using a cart, but it’s realistically the only way I can play now.”
A testament to his ability to still be competitive came in the Toshiba Classic where he finished tied for sixth at 7-under-par despite not having played competitively for two and a half years.
“I barely got into the tournament and didn’t really practice or hit balls any to get ready,” Jones said of his high finish. “My only expectation was to place 50th to 60th, I thought that would be good. Placing that high I felt like I had won the tournament. You put more pressure on yourself and sometimes you just have to get out of your own way.”
And while Jones may be in the fall of his professional career, the memories of the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am remain clearly intact.
“The folks there were incredibly friendly and supportive,” he said. “For that event to sustain itself for 39 years is amazing. It tells you about the people in Garden City and their support. They should be proud of the event, because there’s two great golf courses there and I think the fabulous layouts is what has drawn great players there through the years. I definitely want to thank the people for all they did for me early in my career.”
Contact Brett Marshall at email@example.com