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Jones turns daydream believer and puts career on new track '96 winner remains unknown but has shown he's not one-win wonder

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It happened again last Monday. Steve Jones was en route from the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, to the Kemper Open, and the champion of the United States went unnoticed.

"I was on an airplane from Columbus, and the guy next to me was a businessman in a golf shirt," Jones said. "The stewardess asked him, 'Are you in town for the Memorial?' She didn't say anything to me.

"The day after the Phoenix Open, I was getting my hair cut at the mall. The woman cutting my hair had been at the tournament, and was telling me about all the fun she had. I asked her, 'Did you see that Tiger Woods got a hole in one?' and she said 'Oh, yeah.' I asked her, 'Do you know who won?' I never told her who won."

That would be the anonymous Jones, whose victory at the Phoenix Open in January silenced the isolated claims that his improbable win in the U.S. Open last year was a fluke. It's been a year since Jones claimed one of the most improbable wins ever in the championship of his homeland. Does he still pinch himself to make sure he's not daydreaming?

"You look at it, and still say it's hard to believe," he said. "Not only because I was up against a lot of odds, but because of the state of my game. I had only been playing a year and a half. At the same time, when I'm hitting the ball and putting decently, I've got a chance to win."

Harry Truman in 1948 and the Amazin' Mets of '69 were favorites compared to Jones' chances going into last year's U.S. Open at Oakland Hills.

In 1989, he was one of the hottest young players on the PGA Tour, but within two years, Jones' career was in ruins. In November 1991, he was severely injured ligaments in his left ring finger in a dirt-bike accident. Rehabilitation was set back when he further damaged the hand tearing up carpet in his Phoenix home.

Jones missed all of 1992 and '93, and entered a handful of tournaments in 1994. He returned to the big tour two years ago with a reverse overlap grip -- he lays his left index finger over his right pinkie. Jones earned more than $230,000 in prize money that year. But he still had to survive a playoff in sectional qualifying just to earn a spot in last year's U.S. Open.

Rather than head early to Oakland Hills for practice, Jones instead got in some fishing in Montana. He was seven strokes off the pace after one round. There was no playoff, only because Tom Lehman and Davis Love III, two seemingly steely veterans, bogeyed No. 18 while Jones stuck a 7-iron within inches of the cup for an easy two-putt par.

Was the new and improved Jones a one-win wonder? Hardly. In January, he was 26-under at the Phoenix Open. His margin of victory over Jesper Parnevik was 11 strokes, and it was the second biggest runaway this year, bettered only by Tiger Woods' historic 12-stroke win at the Masters.

"I never feel I have to prove anything, but it was nice to win another one," Jones said. "I was playing very well. I'd like to get that back."

A month later in Tucson, Jones was close, but a mistake in club selection on No. 18 -- he hit a 6-iron approach just over the green instead of a 7-iron -- led to a closing bogey and a one-stroke loss to Jeff Sluman. That was Jones' last sniff at the leader board. He has missed the cut in five of the seven tournaments he has since played.

After the MCI Classic in mid-April, he took off a month. Even though Jones might not get noticed on jets and in the mall, the U.S. Open champion is still bombarded with requests for appearances and prospective deals from manufacturers.

"You just need to give yourself a break every once in a while," Jones said of the fatigue factor. "I began to feel it around Doral [in early March]. The loss at Tucson kind of helped that feeling."

The lure of the outdoors is one reason he's moving his wife and two children from Phoenix to Bozeman, Mont. It's hardly a golf mecca, but the home he is having built there will include a barn where he can hit balls and a small green where he can putt.

If the neighbors don't notice Jones, the fish will.

Same time, last year

,

At Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Par 70

Steve Jones ........ 74-66-69-69278

Davis Love III ..... 71-69-70-69279

Tom Lehman ......... 71-72-65-71279

John Morse ......... 68-74-68-70280

Ernie Els .......... 72-67-72-70281

Jim Furyk .......... 72-69-70-70281

Scott Hoch ......... 73-71-71-67282

Vijay Singh ........ 71-72-70-69282

Ken Green .......... 73-67-72-70282

Lee Janzen ......... 68-75-71-69283

Greg Norman ........ 73-66-74-70283

Colin Montgomerie .. 70-72-69-72283

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