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Lasting memory …

Teeing up true golf tale: Jones, Masters champion Johnson have history

Ricky Jones beat Dustin Johnson, now world's No. 1 player, in down-to-wire 2007 U.S. Amateur match
By Ken Waltz | Nov 17, 2020
Photo by: Mark Haskell Ricky Jones watches a tee shot during a round at the Samoset Resort.

Thomaston — It is a golf match Dustin Johnson probably looked to erase from his mind as quickly as he walked off the course that Wednesday afternoon 13 years ago, but one Ricky Jones will have embedded in his memory — and deep in his heart and soul — for the remainder of his life.

That is because, perhaps for Johnson, who capped the pandemic-altered 2020 Masters tournament with a record-setting, 72-hole, 20-under par score on Sunday, Nov. 15 at Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia, losing a match to an opponent, an older one from Maine, no less, was a tough pill to swallow, especially for, at that time, the world''s top-ranked amateur.

The day was Aug. 22, the year 2007 and the match part of the prestigious United States Amateur at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif.

That is the place in time where then 35-year-old Jones, one of the most successful amateur golfers in state history, stunned a 23-year-old youngster who would, in the future, become the world's number one professional and a two-time major tournament winner, to this point.

Thirteen years ago, Jones, now 48, of Thomaston, qualified for the prestigious and talent-laden U.S. Amateur, a significant achievement for anyone, especially one with deep Midcoast golf roots.

That summer, Jones played well enough to qualify for the top 64 and advance to match play. In his first match, he used a strong, steady overall round to put himself 1-up and then hit a remarkable second shot on the par-4 18th hole to close out the then young, but especially talented Johnson, for the final chapter of a golf story Jones will recall over and over with warm, unwavering reverence.

Storied career

Of course, Jones is a remarkable golfer in his own right. He has compiled an incredible resumé that, by most mortal standards, has a wow factor of 10. When on top of his game he has the game to beat any golfer in the world on any given day in any given round on any given course.

But an opponent who was the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world at the time and who would become the No. 1-ranked overall player in the world? Of course. Jones has that kind of skill and, more importantly, that kind of grit, determination and confidence.

So how did Jones get in a position to beat Dustin Johnson?

Well, to start, Jones experienced standout success at Rockland District High School and Division I University of Maine in Orono and, of course, he went on to win three Maine Amateur titles (2003, 2004 and 2013, including being runner-up in 2005, 2010, 2012 and 2016, and third in 1993, 1996, 2001, 2008 and 2009), Maine Open champion (2007), Maine Match Play champion (2014), five-time winner of the Paul Bunyan Amateur (2001, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2013), six-time Maine Mid-Amateur champion (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2013) and one who has qualified to play in three U.S. Amateurs (2004, 2007 and 2008).

Remember, the U.S. Amateur is a tourney Tiger Woods won three times.

Over the years, Jones, a member of the Maine Golf Hall of Fame and Midcoast Sports Hall of Fame, has played in a bundle of state, New England, Canadian and national golf events, but, for an amateur, it does not get more "real" than playing in the U.S. Am.

The Samoset Resort Golf Club member qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur four times (2006, 2008, 2011, 2014), U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships four times (2008, 2009, 2010, 2013), was a member of U.S. State team representing Maine seven times (2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016) and was Barrett East Coast Amateur Champion (2004, when he shot course record 65 first day, then tied new course record with 62 second day).

Jones helped lead RDHS to three state Class A championships (the Tigers won five straight, including two before Jones came into the school). After his senior year of golf, he transferred to Jonesport-Beals High School.

He went on to play golf briefly at then Husson College in Bangor (now Husson University) before transferring and playing golf three years at the University of Maine in Orono, where he was named America East all-conference 1993 and 1994 and won the Maine Intercollegiate Golf Championship.

Jones also holds course records for 18 holes at the Samoset Resort and Rockland Golf Club — both 60s.

So the father of two has the golf chops and has paid his course dues.

But did he really beat Dustin Johnson, the current talk of the golf world?

Facing elite opponents

Jones said he has played tournaments across the country with incredibly talented golfers, including those who have been successful touring pros.

"Just qualifying for a USGA event is pretty significant," Jones said. "I’ve been lucky to play in 18. At a US Mid-Amateur banquet, the speaker for the USGA told us to look around the room at the 256 players and then said for 97 percent of you, this will be the one and only time you play in a USGA event. Statistically, only three percent of people that qualify for an event will qualify to play in a second event."

But, in retrospect, one tournament, the 2007 U.S. Am, proved special because Jones, essentially an unknown, at least at that time in those lofty national golf circles in that part of the country, got the opportunity to play a young, highly-touted golfer who would, in the future go on the fast track to a stellar pro career and become a U.S. Open and Masters champion.

In golf circles, those are lofty achievements.

Jones, whose family includes daughter, Chloe, a softball player at American Internation College in Worcester, Mass. (she is home taking online classes and athletic practices have been cancelled due to COVID-19), son, Rhys, a sophomore student-athlete at Oceanside High School (he plays golf, of course), and his wife, Christienne, has had many lofty achievements on the golf course, but, perhaps, none more significant than beating Johnson in the first round of match play at the 2007 U.S. Am.

That year, Colt Knost defeated Michael Thompson, 2-and-1, to win an event that started with 7,398 entries. Two of those were Jones and Johnson. Jones was in the midst of his illustrious amateur career in the Northeast and Johnson had just finished an illustrious four-year career at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Johnson was a member of the winning 2007 Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams, and later turned pro that same year.

However, before those things happened, Jones and Johnson had a date with destiny, a fateful meeting on the course, one Jones will never forget and Johnson surely has pushed deep in the recesses of his brain as he basks in the glow of pinnacle achievements in the sport.

Talented, powerful foe

At 6 feet 4 inches, 190 pounds, the man known as "DJ" is a presence on the course, and was even as a young man. He had an incredible all-around game then and, obviously, has elevated those immense skills to another level.

Johnson, a Columbia, S.C. native who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is one of the longest drivers of the ball on the pro tour and even in his young-20s he could hit about 40 yards farther than Jones, at the time one of the longer hitters in Maine golf.

At this point, Johnson has 27 pro wins, including the latest, the Masters, as well as the 2016 U.S. Open, which accounts for his two victories in majors. He also has six World Golf Championship victories.

Johnson, who just returned to active play after spending a few weeks sidelined following a positive test for coronavirus, has been ranked No. 1 in the world, off and on, for more than 100 weeks the last three years.

Jones has fond memories of his match with Johnson, known for his patient, deliberate play and calm demeanor on the course. And length off the tee.

“That’s about as long as I’m going to see someone hit it," Jones recalled of Johnson's longest tee shots.

In the match with Johnson, Jones recalled hitting a shot into the middle of the fairway on the first hole, only to see Johnson seemingly blast a shot off the tee “what I thought was way right up over the trees," Jones said.

“We got down there and he was about 50 yards ahead of me right down the middle of the fairway,” Jones said. "He had just blown it over everything.”

“It was a battle back-and-forth the whole way," Jones said. "I think we only tied like three holes and it came down to the last hole.”

A special shot

Jones, who held a 1-up lead at that point, recalled both golfers hit solid tee shots in the 18th fairway, with Johnson out driving Jones by about 10 yards. Jones then hit his second shot up onto an elevated green, as did Johnson.

Jones hit first and said, “Everyone started screaming,” in reference to his shot, “so I thought I might have holed it out.”

“We walked up and mine was an inch from the hole,” said Jones. “He came over, shook my hand and said, ‘Good match.’ And it was over.”

Jones had beaten Johnson, now one of the most recognizable golfers on the PGA Tour.

A May 31, 2012 Golfweek article written by Jim McCabe gave a revealing account of the Jones-Johnson match that Jones won 1-up with his brilliant approach to the 18th green.

The article was written as Johnson was returning to the PGA Tour after being sidelined for more than two months with a back injury. He made a return to The Olympic Club, site of his loss to Jones in the first round of the 2007 U.S. Am match play.

McCabe wrote that Johnson remembered the course, but not when he was knocked from the tourney and by whom.

Jones, of course, remembers. Crisply and quite clearly.

The McCabe story said Johnson had "no idea" who beat him. When asked, "Do you think the guy who beat you remembers who he beat?"

Johnson said, with a laugh, "I'm sure. I'm sure he does."

Yes, Jones is well aware of who he beat in the first round of match play of the 2007 US Amateur. He believes, wait for it, it is a golfer who has made quite a name for himself and is not easily forgotten.

Sweet memory

Jones, a longtime Oceanside area youth and school athletic coach, said in that 2012 story he often hears about how he beat Johnson — and it always makes him smile.

Jones shot 2-over 142 to finish tied for 13th among 312 players at the event to qualify for the match-play portion of the event.

The McCabe article goes on to note Jones did not know who he would be paired with in the first round of match play. It would, of course, be one of the other 63 qualifiers.

Jones, who picked up a golf club for the first time at age 12, recalled that at the time he felt he was about to face someone on the Walker Cup team. Webb Simpson was a possibility, or a handful of others — Chris Kirk, Billy Horschel, Jamie Lovemark or Kyle Stanley. Next thing he knew, Jones stood next to his mother and realized he was going to draw Johnson, the McCabe article revealed.

“Who’s that?” Jones' mother, Lillian, asked.

“Currently the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, that’s all,” Jones said.

Jones remembers the tourney, and infamous Johnson match, well.

"I played really well," Jones said on Monday, Nov. 16. "First day there was a fog delay, and I was in the afternoon wave of tee times. The horn for darkness sounded when we were on the difficult 13th tee of the Lake Course (U.S. Open course). My playing partners and I decided to finish the hole because we didn’t want to start the next day on that hole in the morning as it was a long hole and narrow drive between trees. I actually holed out from the greenside bunker to end the day after 13 at even. The next day I completed that round at even and then had 30 minutes before starting my second round. I remember I got to -3 after five holes in that round, but finished the round at 2-over, which ended up being tied for 13th. The second round wasn’t completed until the third morning, so I didn’t find out who I had to play until then. After the brackets were completed a few of the guys who I had played with and knew told me, 'Sorry, tough draw.' "

The McCabe story goes on to state while Johnson probably does not remember much about that match, Jones does. He recalls it being a back-and-forth affair, because it was not until the 16th that a hole was halved. Johnson was 2-up through six holes, but Jones won four in a row to go 2-up.

Johnson won the next two holes, but Jones took the 13th and 14th to go 2-up, and Johnson sliced the deficit in half when he won the 15th. Halves at 16 and 17 brought the match to the final hole, the infamous short, but severely uphill, par 4 with the back-to-front sloping green.

McCabe wrote that moment produced a memory that is forever etched in Jones’ mind.

“I hit a 4-iron off the tee and Dustin was about 10 yards ahead of me," Jones told McCabe. "I hit a 9-iron from about 140 yards and all we could see up at the green were a bunch of people standing on the hill. Next thing I knew, they were cheering. I asked my caddie, ‘Did that go in?’ And he said, ‘I think so.' ”

Jones' approach shot did not go in, but it was only an inch from the hole, so when Johnson hit his second shot to eight feet and walked to the green to see Jones’ ball, the match was over. The matching birdies were conceded and Jones had a 1-up stunner in his back pocket, McCabe wrote.

"The match itself was up and down," Jones said on Nov. 16. "I remember our first drives of the day on the par-5 first. I hit a nice fade right down the middle of the left-to-right hole. He then got up and hit it over the trees on the right and I thought he would be in the rough. When we got over the crest of the hill, we were both in the fairway, he was just 50 yards further than me. He made birdie on that hole, but then I made birdie on two to be square again. Overall, either someone would make a bogey because they hit it in the rough, or someone would make birdie."

Then, as fate had drawn it up, Jones stood in the 18th fairway 1-up. "My second shot on 18 I will never forget," Jones said Nov. 16. "I couldn’t see the hole, but to hear the crowd roar and then walk up the hill and finally see that my ball was an inch short of the hole was crazy."

Jones, always known as a determined, bulldog-type of player, said the start to his match with Johnson had a different vibe.

"I was very nervous on the first tee, but after that I actually had a chip on my shoulder because everyone I spoke to when brackets came out didn’t think I had a chance to win," Jones said Nov. 16. "I really had nothing to lose, so I didn’t have jitters other than the first tee. During the round, it’s odd to have people (spectators) cheer you on that you don’t know and want handshakes as you walk through the ropes going from greens to the tee."

Impressions of Johnson

And what was Jones' recollection of Johnson's game?

"He hit the ball a really long way, but missed several fairways that day," Jones said Nov. 16. "Like everyone who played in the tournament, it was a struggle to get balls anywhere near the hole from the rough. Majority of the time, I could get a 6-iron closer to the pin then he could with a wedge out of the rough."

The next day of that 2007 U.S. Am, Jones ended was ousted by George Zahringer, 2-up, but will never forget the opportunity to play, and beat, someone who would become so famous.

"It’s definitely hard to say at that point," Jones said when asked he had an inkling Johnson would be special. "At the time, you know from his No. 1 ranking, from his college record and being chosen for the Walker Cup team he was a special player. However, when you play at the U.S. Amateur there are 311 other guys that all can golf pretty darn good on any given day. That year, you had Webb Simpson, Billy Horschel, Jason Kokrak — who I played a practice round with — who all just played in this last Masters. When I look at all the names at that tournament, there are seven to 10 others that have gone on to win on the PGA tour."

While Johnson has gone on to bigger and better things, with a flood of memorable experiences tucked away in his brain (and that loss probably long forgotten), Jones has that time encased in his mind, if for nothing else, to tell his golfing buddies, if he was so inclined, "You know who I once beat? That is right, the Masters champion. Top that."

But, all these years later, does Jones watch Johnson on television a bit more due to the connection?

"Sometimes if I know he is doing well, I may tune into a tournament that I normally wouldn’t watch," Jones said. "I always watch the Masters though. However, I usually get a few texts from friends or a call from my mother when Dustin does well. I just text back '1-0.' It’s definitely a fun memory, and glad I got to experience it."

As for how his game is going as he ages, Jones said it is, as always, a work in progress.

"My game is pretty good," he said. "I’ve struggled a little bit the last few years especially with the putter and to begin this year. I had six putters in the back of my car for a while. I’ve probably lost 15 to 20 yards on my drives since then and 10 yards (one club difference) on my irons. I did have a pretty good end to the last month of this strange season. I shot 65 the first day at Mid-Am, but had a bad five-hole stretch where I shot 6-over for those holes on the second day and that is what I shot for the day. I won the final three MSGA events [at Samoset, Martindale and Falmouth) I played in to end the season."

Jones said he watches golf on television, but mostly the majors. Of course, he can, unlike most amateurs, identify with some of the shots the pros hit because he has hit the same sweet shots during his career.

"I’m not sure about that," he said. "I just like to watch the amazing shots they pull off sometimes. I definitely find myself saying, 'I couldn’t do that' a lot more than I used to."

Jones said golf has evolved in recent years, especially the distance people like Johnson, and especially Bryson DeChambeau, hit the ball.

"Golf has definitely changed since persimmon woods and balata balls," Jones said. "Four-hundred-yard drives seem unfathomable, but there is so much technology now compared to 15 to 20 years ago. Trackman has definitely helped these guys along with the equipment. They can dial in their equipment and swings to get optimal spin, launch and distance. They aren’t grabbing clubs off the rack and hitting the course and finding something that feels good, it’s all calculated."

And Jones feels he has a somewhat calculated strategy for his future in the game.

"I’m looking forward in trying to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open in two years at 50 years old and the U.S. Senior Amateur events when I turn 55, although seven years is a long time," he said. "Other than that, I’m getting ready for the day Rhys finally beats me."

Mark Haskell of Courier Publications/VillageSoup contributed to this story.

Tiger Woods, back, puts the green jacket on 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson on Nov. 15 at the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Ga. (Courtesy of: Facebook/Dustin Johnson)
Ricky Jones hits a tee shot, with the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse as a back drop, at the Samoset Resort. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Ricky Jones. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Ricky Jones putts during a Maine Amateur round. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
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