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Many people think that because the ball flies farther and straighter, and high-tech clubs make it easier to hit, the highly skilled pros who play on today's exquisitely maintained Tour courses should put up record numbers. Yet Mike Souchak's nearly 42-year-old PGA Tour scoring mark of 27 under par for a 72-hole tournament still stands. The hounds have caught the scent, though, and they're closing in. In fact, the standard, which Souchak set with a 257 in the 1955 Texas Open, could go any week now. "That record is on borrowed time," says Nick Price. "The big-headed drivers and the quality of the greens and the fact that players are a lot better...I don't know when it's going to happen or on which course, but it will."
Steve Jones, the reigning U.S. Open champion, is the latest Tour pro to have a fender bender with history. While winning last week's Phoenix Open in a runaway, Jones came up one stroke shy of tying Souchak's mark, and on a dreary Sunday was within a you've-gotta-be-kidding lipo for an eagle on the 17th hole and a nearly holed approach on 18 that would've put-him over the top. As it was, Jones's 26-under 258 provided an 11-stroke victory over Jesper Parnevik.
Last year John Cook also missed the record by one shot, at Memphis. Mark Calcavecchia shot 261, 27 under, through 72 holes of the recent Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, a 90-hole event. And last week there was Jones, who made his remarkable run despite hitting barely more than half of the fairways at the TPC at Scottsdale. Five of the nine scores within four shots of Souchak's target have come in the last nine years, three in the last four years. Jones joins Cook and Donnie Hammond, the 1989 Texas Open winner, in the record book as having the second-lowest total ever.
The weather played a role in Jones's assault, just as it did when Souchak set the record. One of the most impressive aspects of Souchak's feat is that the final round of the '55 Texas Open at Bracken-ridge Park in San Antonio was played in a bone-chilling norther, yet he still shot 65. The weather in Phoenix on Sunday was also wet and windy, and Jones shot 67. "If it had been nice, Souchak's record would've gone down," said Rick Fehr, who tied for fourth, 14 shots behind Jones. "It was definitely two or three shots harder today."
Two things were unusual about Jones's score. First, no one expected it. The pre-tournament talk was about how this year's event would probably have higher scores because of the deeper than usual rough and the firm greens. That was all forgotten, though, when Jones shot 62 in the opening round, followed with a 64 and tacked on a 65 on Saturday. "It was weird," Fehr said. "Tuesday, with the deep rough and the crusty greens, I was thinking, Oh my gosh, nobody's going to go crazy this week. Next thing you know, somebody did. It shows you how good these players are. The only way to keep them from doing that is to set up the course the way the USGA does at the Open. The average amateur will come out here tomorrow, get a look at this rough and shake his head in disbelief" Of course, that's what the other players were doing -when they looked up at Jones's scores. Erase Jones and there were only five players at 12 under or better, with Parnevik at 15 under, a fairly common winning number on Tour. "This would've been a great tournament if not for Steve Jones," joked fellow Phoenix resident and defending champion Phil Mickelson.
The other strange chapter of the Jones story was that when he made that final birdie, he thought he had tied the record. Fulton Allem of South Africa, also playing in the final threesome, kept pushing Jones. "Fulton encouraged me—'Come on, let's go. Let's get that record,' " Jones said. "He was really pulling for me, but he kept telling me that 26 was the number. I still thought 26 was the record on the last hole. I thought that putt was to tie. So I'm on the last hole, I've got the tournament won, and I'm still feeling pressure. It was like, I've got to make this putt. Where does the pressure stop?"
How much pressure can there be when you've got a 10-shot lead during most of the final round? Certainly not as much as Jones experienced last summer when he was winning his only major, at Oakland Hills outside Detroit. His victory there was surprising because he had been off the Tour for more than three years in the early '90s, recovering from a dirt bike accident. Taking into account the early years of his career (a win at Pebble Beach in 1988 and three more victories in 1989) as well as the Open and his consistently good play over the past five months, you have to admit that Jones has been vastly underrated. Instead of wondering how someone like him was able to win the Open, we should consider how good Jones might have been if he had a sound left hand. (The damage to his ring finger was so severe that he has been forced to use a reverse-overlap grip—essentially a putting grip—on all his shots.)
Jones is long—he averaged 280.1 yards off the tee last week, 12th best in the field—and hits the ball straighter than he used to. He remains one of the best putters on Tour, 17th overall in 1996. That's a combination that should've drawn raves eight years ago but somehow went largely unnoticed. "He definitely would've piled up some numbers if he'd had those three years," says Paul Azinger. "He is secure in himself and who he is. His ability to put the last shot behind him is fantastic. He's a big man, he's got incredibly large shoulders, and is extremely powerful. He doesn't drive it perfectly straight, but he's very long, and strong out of the rough. And he's a brilliant putter. When he goes streaking like this week, there's no stopping him. He plays the same when he's got the lead. This week he said he was going to stay aggressive and increase his lead, and he did."
Jones doesn't look back with regret. If he hadn't been hurt, he says, maybe he wouldn't have found the determination to come back, a quality he needed at the Open. "It's the old foxhole conversion thing," Jones says. "When I had those three years off, I said that if I ever get back, I'm going to practice harder, I'm going to rededicate myself and be a better player. I never thought my career was over, but it could've been. This is a great win. My goal after the Open was to prove that I could win again."
Jones, now the Tour's leading money winner in '97 ($346,414) after the sixth victory of his career, dominated at Phoenix because of his putting. He needed just 99 putts for the week—nine fewer than Parnevik and 14 fewer than Price, who came in third. Jones hit only 49 of 72 greens in regulation, so imagine how much he might have won by if he had hit the ball well. "My putting was phenomenal this week," said Jones, who has used the same Bulls Eye putter for 15 years. "I ought to bronze that thing when I'm done. On the 2nd hole today, I had a 25-footer for par and said to myself, Let's see if this is my week or not. I stroked it in and thought, Yeah, it's my week."