ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Professionally, it’s not exactly where he’d like to be.
Personally, however, Kent Jones is right at home.
Thus, when the PGA Tour veteran tees it up in today’s opening round of the 60th annual New Mexico Open at Santa Ana Golf Club, he will not only be one of the favorites to win, but will be one of the crowd favorites, as well.
“I haven’t played at home since 2000, so I’m really looking forward to this,” says Jones, who tees off at 9 a.m. today. “It should be a lot of fun.”
Jones is a Portales native, raised in Carlsbad, graduated from Carlsbad High and the University of New Mexico, and has lived in Albuquerque since 2000.
But after more than two decades as a professional, he is competing for a share of the New Mexico Open purse for the first time.
Jones played in the Open before, but never as a pro. He says his last appearance was sometime in the late 1980s or early ’90s as an amateur when he played for the Lobos.
This week, he’ll have a shot at part of the $92,000 purse in the 54-hole event. Top prize is $14,500.
Those figures, of course, are dwarfed by some of the paydays Jones has had. He has played in at least one PGA Tour event in 17 of the past 18 years and has made the cut 180 times. He has 11 top-10 finishes and has made more than $5 million on the circuit.
He’s also had big-time success on the Web.com Tour (formerly Nike, Nationwide and Buy.com), winning two tournaments in 2000 – the only year he didn’t play a PGA Tour event.
That was also the last year he played in a pro tournament back home, finishing tied for 19th at the now defunct New Mexico Classic on the Nationwide Tour at Santa Ana.
That was far from his highlight that week in early October.
“I walked the course on Thursday and Friday with him,” Joanna, Jones’ wife of nearly 22 years, says of the first two rounds. “On Saturday, I had contractions and had to go to the hospital. I was praying he would finish the tournament before I had the baby. They sent me home, and Sunday night I went back with more contractions. They sent me home again.”
Jones finished the event that day. Two days later, on Oct. 11, he watched Joanna give birth to the couple’s first child, Lauren.
“We really never got too nervous about it,” Joanna says. “Maybe it was because it was the first time for both of us and we didn’t know better.”
The second time came nearly two years to the day. Son Samuel was born Oct. 8, 2002.
At 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds – the latter likely with a couple of clubs in hand – Jones wasn’t an imposing force in college. But his swing, smarts and savvy helped him win the Western Athletic Conference individual title and league player of the year honors in 1989.
He was a two-time All-WAC performer and two-time Academic All-American at UNM.
Still, Jones wasn’t close to being a lock for future PGA Tour status, and even he wasn’t sure that was the direction he wanted.
After getting his degree (management with a concentration on accounting) from UNM in the spring of 1990, Jones remained in school to work on his master’s. He became a graduate assistant coach for Lobo golf under John Fields.
He finished his MBA in December 1991 – and was champing at the bit to play competitively again.
“By the time I was finished with school, I had gone 6½years straight,” Jones says. “I was ready to turn pro.”
A month later, Kent and Joanna – who had been dating long-distance the previous four years while she attended New Mexico State – got married in Las Cruces.
Then Kent hit the road, playing on a number of minitours and the Canadian Tour.
“During my first year as a pro, Joanna worked and stayed in Albuquerque,” Jones says. “I traveled, but it wasn’t working out. My dad saw a story about a golfer who bought a fifth-wheel RV, and thought that was a good idea.”
So did Kent and Joanna. They bought their own RV and traveled through Canada the next three years while he cut his professional golf teeth.
But Joanna, like Kent a 1985 Carlsbad High graduate, was more than just a wife on the road.
“I caddied for him in Canada,” she says. “It really was a lot of fun. It was just the two of us and a dog traveling across Canada for three summers.”
During the winters, the couple lived in Florida, and Jones played in various state opens until he qualified for the Nike Tour in 1996.
“We got rid of the RV,” he says.
In the fall of 1997, Jones made it through PGA Tour Qualifying School to golf’s greatest stage. He and Joanna moved to an apartment in Las Cruces, and Jones flew to events out of El Paso. He made 24 cuts over the 1998 and 1999 seasons, but didn’t finish high enough on the money list and lost his PGA Tour status for 2000.
Kent and Joanna moved to Albuquerque that year and Jones had a great season on the Buy.com Tour (formerly Nike), finishing seventh on the year’s money list. The top 15 got PGA Tour status, so Jones was back with the big boys in 2001.
While he has had an extremely successful career, Jones has had to play in Q-School “about a dozen times” to try to get on or hang on the PGA Tour.
“He’s just a grinder,” says Ladera Golf Course head pro Wright Zimmerly, a close friend for more than 20 years who has worked as Jones’ caddie in numerous PGA events. Zimmerly will caddie for Jones this week.
“His degree in accounting is perfect for him,” Zimmerly says. “He is very analytical on the golf course. He hits a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. His longevity shows how good he is. He’s really the ultimate grinder.”
In golf, a grinder is a guy who isn’t dominating, but who just won’t quit battling. Fitting?
“I don’t know, I guess it’s probably accurate,” Jones says after pausing. “It’s just sort of the way it’s been. I’ve played quite a bit, and I grind it out. I work hard. I’ve never had the (PGA Tour) win or been super comfortable with my (tour status). But I just keep going.”
Honed at home
Jones had a solid season in 2011, making the cut in 15 of the 25 PGA Tour events he played, finishing as high as 11th. But he missed the tour’s top 125 money winners, which meant he missed getting his tour card. It was back to Q-School, where Jones finished 30th and missed making the PGA Tour by one shot.
Because of having “veteran’s status” (having made more than 150 career cuts), Jones still gets into a number of PGA Tour events. He played in seven in 2012 and one in 2013’s shortened season.
But the PGA Tour changed its qualifying this year, and players can get back on it only by finishing in the top 25 of the Web.com Tour. The 2014 season begins in October.
“I’m a little in flux right now, because I don’t know how many events I’ll be able to get in on either tour,” Jones says. “No one is really sure how it’s going to go with the changes.
“To get back on tour, you have to commit to the Web.com Tour for a year to play your way back on. I’m just trying to figure out how much to play before the Champions Tour (ages 50 and over), which is 3½ years away.”
In the meantime, Jones hones his game at the same place he did in college – the UNM Championship Golf Course.
“It’s awesome that he practices out here,” Lobo men’s golf coach Glen Millican says. “He is one of the best supporters of our team as a fan, an alum and donor. It’s great for our program to share our home facility with him and have him involved in program like he is.”
While Jones has spent much of his professional career on the road, home is never far from his heart.
“It’s really, really nice when he’s at home,” Joanna says, sitting on a couch in their 4,000-square-foot Northwest Albuquerque house with two of the family’s four pooches jumping on her lap.
“He is such a hands-on dad. He comes in and picks right up in the routine. I get very spoiled when he’s home. He takes Samuel to whatever he needs to do – Little League baseball, golf, everything. We all get spoiled when he’s around.”
Jones not only makes as many of his kids’ events as possible – daughter Lauren is a cross-country runner and cheerleader – but can be found keeping the official score book at Samuel’s fall Little League games and raking the field prior to contests.
“I enjoy it a lot,” he says of being a family man. “Through all the ups and downs of golf, the thing I like best is that every time I come home, these guys are here.”
He and Joanna have spent more than a quarter-century together, and have known each other even longer. They were high school sweethearts after all, right?
“No,” Joanna says with a smile.
“No, no,” Kent quickly adds.
“We were friends, but I didn’t date golfers in high school,” Joanna – a cheerleader and Carlsbad’s homecoming queen – says with a laugh. “We didn’t start dating until a couple of years out of high school.”
Kent, valedictorian of his class, adds: “We weren’t in the same social circles. I wasn’t nearly cool enough in high school.”
While Jones is still the soft-spoken gentleman he’s been since high school, there are a lot of folks out there who think he’s plenty cool.
“He’s just a great role model,” Millican says.
Samuel and Lauren agree. But having a famous father doesn’t phase them.
“My friends at school, they know that my dad’s a professional golfer,” Lauren, a seventh-grader at Annunciation, says. “But really, they are more impressed that my mom is a cheerleader.”
Samuel, a fifth-grader at Annunciation, says his friends, too, know about his dad’s craft, and “I watch him on TV from time to time.”
But Samuel says the topic doesn’t come up much at school.
Or at home, for that matter.
“My friends know he’s famous, but we don’t talk about it a lot,” Samuel says. “And to me, he’s just Dad.”