Chaska, Minn. — Along the coast of New South Wales, the wind usually howls, clawing across small towns like Moruya and Tuross Head. Which explains why Brendan Jones was among the few golfers with a smile on his face after the end of the PGA Championship’s second round at Hazeltine National.
By mid-day a gusty, blustery gale had risen up from the south-southwest. It was the kind of breeze that makes an Aussie homesick. And comfortable.
Jones, best known for being the first-round victim of Tiger Woods in the World Match Play Championship in Tucson earlier this year, is at home playing in the wind. He loves it, as a matter of fact. There he was at three under par, two shots off the lead when he finished his second round about 45 minutes before first-round leader Woods even teed off. Jones is a pleasant man and on this occasion, only his third PGA Championship appearance, he couldn’t stop smiling.
“I get a bit of a sleep-in tomorrow,” he said.
Despite the wind, or maybe because of it, the 34-year-old turned in a very solid round. One birdie, one eagle, one bogey, for a two-under-par 70. Three under par might look pretty good by the end of the Friday’s second round if that fickle, gusting wind keeps up.
“Today, it felt like I did every thing easily,” said Jones, an eight-time winner on the Japan Tour. “I hate to use the word easy. I just felt like I wasn’t going to make mistakes. This was a big occasion for me. I know I hit some really good shots down the stretch.”
The biggest came at the short par-4 14th. The tees were up and a helping wind was coming from the left. It was 290 yards to the front of the green, Jones said, and he hit a “perfect 4-wood” to 15 feet, then made the eagle putt moments after watching playing companion Steve Marino chip in for eagle.
“It was fun,” said Jones. Asked if he’ll be able to forget about the fact that he’s in contention in a major championship on the weekend, he answered, “Probably not, I’ve got to be honest. It’s just fun to come to America again and put up a couple of good scores.”
Jones lives in Canberra with his wife and two-year-old son. He played the U.S. tour full-time in 2005 and ’06 but didn’t enjoy it so he opted for Japan, a considerably easier road trip from Australia and a tour with considerably less pressure.
“I found it stressful here and I wore myself out early each year,” Jones said. “You’re playing for ridiculous money each week and everyone is looking at the top 125 and top 40s and whatever. I’ve played great in Japan the last few years and I’m very, very relaxed. I speak a little Japanese but the cameras aren’t on you all the time. You go about your day-to-day life and play golf. That’s what I like about it. I live in Australia, commute to Japan six or seven times a year. I’m very happy with my life.”
Americans typically don’t believe him when he says he’d rather play in Japan. “Yeah, people look at you funny,” he said. “I love America, I’ve been here, I’ve seen it, I know what it’s about. I’ve still got a townhouse in Dallas and some great friends here. If something changes in my life and I want to practice a lot or be No. 20 in the world, I’ll come back. I know now that I can mix it up with the best players. Japan just works better for me.”
What’s so stressful about playing for large sums of money, he was asked? “On the PGA Tour, I just felt like I had to get out and practice and all these things that I don’t do,” Jones said, grinning.
You may remember that about Jones from when he faced Tiger in the Match Play in February. He was coming off a four-month break and even though he knew he’d face Woods, he didn’t rush to get back to the practice tee during his vacation. Practice? Not for Jones. He’s no Vijay Singh, “I’m not someone who just beats balls every day,” Jones admitted. “When I’m not playing, I get away from golf totally.”.
His match with Tiger, who was making his much-hyped return from knee surgery, wasn’t close but Jones did put up a good fight, losing 3 and 2. Jones was 2 down early, didn’t make a birdie until the 13th hole and eagled the 15th hole, a short par 4, to keep the match alive. In fact, the 4-wood shot at Hazeltine on Friday when he made eagle was exactly like the 4-wood shot he hit to make eagle against Woods, he said.
“The Tiger experience was a pretty big deal for me, that was pretty daunting,” Jones said. “But I know now that when my game is good, I can compete.”
There was an outside possibility, given Friday’s difficult conditions, that he and Woods could get paired on the weekend. It would be much more fun to play with Tiger in a stroke-play event, Jones said, than in match play. “Of course, we didn’t talk much in that much, which I understand,” Jones said of Tucson. “He wasn’t there to be my best mate or anything. I showed the golfing world my ability is there. Now it’s a matter of putting it together for four rounds.”
The Tiger experience, which included a crush of media and fans, was good for him, he said. “Just meeting Tiger was a big thing,” Jones admitted. “I felt calmer after that. It was a big occasion but there’s a kid in Japan, Ryo Ishikawa. You think the crowds are big here for Tiger? Ryo’s got more crowds there and with more media. We went head-to-head a few weeks ago and I came up a little short. Tiger is No. 1, though. It’s always a big deal to play with him.”
Jones is clearly a man at peace. He’s 64th in the world rankings and yes, he’d like to crack the top 50 and be guaranteed a spot in the majors and the World Golf Championships. That would make scheduling easier. But he is satisfied with his life and his career. “I spend more time at home than most pros out here,” he said. “I play 20, 22 weeks a year and I don’t do much practice or anything when I’m home. I’m kind of a part-time player.”
For a part-timer, he’s having quite a showing in the year’s final major championship. Don’t remind me, Jones joked. Asked if he was going to be nervous on the weekend, Jones said, “I’ll sleep like my baby tonight — I’ll wake up a lot.”