With so much hype over the Big Four, hardly anyone noticed Steve Jones until he started pouring in birdies from one side of the green to the other, not stopping until he was one shot off the course record and in the lead Thursday at The Players Championship at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
As long as he’s been away from the PGA Tour, it’s a wonder anyone knew who he was.
Last seen riding around in a cart as an assistant captain at the Ryder Cup, Jones stole the spotlight from the stars on the tame TPC at Sawgrass with an 8-under-par 64 for a one-shot lead over Fred Funk, Zach Johnson and Lee Westwood.
“Eight birdies, no bogeys. That’s a good thing, right?” Jones said, showing he hasn’t forgotten everything about life on the PGA Tour, despite having to sit out all of last year with his third major injury.
Maybe it was just a coincidence that first-round scoring at Sawgrass (71.87) was the lowest since 1996, the year Jones won the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills.
He hasn’t won in seven years, and an elbow injury left him so uncertain about his future that he dabbled in commercial real estate and house painting in case he needed another career on which to fall back.
Vijay Singh continued to show the best form of the Big Four, matching his best start at The Players Championship with a 5-under 67 that was highlighted by two good par saves in the middle of his round and a mammoth tee shot on the 18th that set up a birdie.
The others in the Big Four broke par, but couldn’t keep up with Jones.
Phil Mickelson made seven birdies, only to come undone with shots under trees and under water, in shooting a 70. Tiger Woods failed to birdie any of the par 5s until his last hole and shot 70. Ernie Els had a 71.
It was the first time all four of them broke par in the first round.
Westwood had a chance to join Jones at the top until he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on his final hole, the par-5 ninth.
Jones thought his career might be over when he suffered a severe elbow injury two years ago. His health returned, but it wasn’t until a recent conservation with Hale Irwin that Jones decided to kick it into gear. He wouldn’t divulge details of the motivational speech, but the gist was to stop complaining and go to work.
At Rancho Mirage, Calif., Rosie Jones, who is retiring at the end of this season, had a bogey-free, 3-under 69 to share the first-round lead of the Nabisco Championship with Karen Stupples and Mi Hyun Kim.
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