The Jones Cup Invitational, hosted at Sea Island’s Ocean Forest Golf Club, has a rich history of helping amateur golfers reach their full potential.
By Judd Spicer
Initially founded as a way to celebrate both amateur golf and the camaraderie that is associated with it, the annual Jones Cup Invitational at Sea Island’s Ocean Forest Golf Club has evolved to become a rite of playing passage to the game’s most competitive fairways.
The tournament, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in February 2019, offers an exciting and challenging experience that has helped forge a path to the PGA TOUR for a host of golf’s brightest young stars.
Introducing the Invitational
As a preview to hosting the 38th iteration of the biennial Walker Cup, which featured a match between the United States and the Great Britain and Ireland (GB&I) teams in 2001, Ocean Forest founder Bill Jones III wanted to give his newly opened course a test run for the world’s top amateur players, and thus the Jones Cup was born.
“Bill Jones III had secured the Walker Cup for 2001 as the youngest-ever course (6 years old) in the history of the event to serve as host,” explains Kory Reitz, PGA, general manager and director of golf at Ocean Forest Golf Club, and tournament director for the Jones Cup. “Because of his commitment to amateur golf, Bill really wanted to promote the game, promote the club and have a marquee, premier event as something of a trial; a warmup for the Walker Cup.”
Featuring the likes of Bubba Watson, Lucas Glover, Luke Donald and maiden tournament winner D.J. Trahan, the club-run and -sponsored event proved an instant success. The inaugural Jones Cup also cemented the reputation of the Rees Jones-designed course as a true championship test, and the 54-hole stroke play tournament further achieved its aim as a Walker Cup proving ground.
“The first year, the idea was to invite players from around the world who could potentially be in the Walker Cup, which included 60 or 70 guys, with the idea to [create] camaraderie between the United States and the GB&I teams,” Reitz adds. “And because we were including players who were on the radar for the Walker Cup, it drew attention from the domestic and international golf communities, and it ended up creating a lot of relationships. Bill Jones [III] was an R&A [The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews] member, so he had the connections with a lot of association people around the world, and that first year really ended up attracting a very fine field.”
Jones turned to prominent amateur golfer and charter Ocean Forest member Jim Stahl to lead the event early on. Because of his amateur playing success and extensive travel competing in amateur events worldwide, Stahl played an integral role in securing participation by many of the world’s best amateurs from outside the United States to come to Georgia to compete in the Jones Cup Invitational. Today, the event boasts broad participation, which was evidenced by the 13 countries that were represented in the 2018 Jones Cup.
After holding biennial tournaments from its inception in 2001, the Jones Cup became a yearly staple in 2009, and has since enhanced its field to more than 80 players.
“It had taken its position as one of the top amateur events in the world,” Reitz says. “It continues to attract very strong players and guys with aspirations to play in the Walker Cup. Those relationships have since grown to different golf federations, such as those in France, England, Wales, Germany [and] Scotland.”
Based on the success of the Jones Cup, the event has since given rise to a pair of other top amateur events, the Jones Cup Junior Invitational (founded in 2009) and the Jones Cup Senior Invitational (founded in 2011).
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s become synonymous with amateur golf, and an opportunity for us to continue our dedication to amateur golf and different demographics,” Reitz says.
Built for Skill
Ocean Forest has continually proven to be a worthy challenge for Jones Cup participants. “Rees Jones built a legitimate championship test,” Reitz says. “… It is just a very stern test of golf … and it really defines who has the mettle.” Built right on the ocean, the links-style course also has elements of a parkland style due to its tree-lined fairways. “[The course also includes] some dunes, oak trees, lakes and a lot of wildlife,” Reitz adds.
Adding a measure of tight fairways and small greens only enhances the challenge. “It puts a [premium] on players who control their golf ball, and in reviewing the list of our past champions, you can see that,” Reitz notes.
In 2007, Ocean Forest enjoyed a course renovation that focused primarily on bunker movement, making it even more challenging.
A Path to Greatness
“This is one of the favorite parts of my job,” Reitz says of running the Jones Cup. “As general manager, I oversee essentially all club functions and operations, but this event is an opportunity to give back to amateur golf and to have this relevance on both a national and international level. Just going over the list of our past champions, it’s great to see what they’ve gone on to do a handful of years later on so many different professional tours.”
To look through past Jones Cup fields of contenders and champions is to witness a list of players who have become household names, including Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth.
In 2019, for the fourth consecutive year, the Jones Cup victor will earn further fruits for their labors, with the winner granted an exemption to play in the PGA TOUR’s annual RSM Classic (contingent upon his amateur status), hosted by Davis Love III and played at Sea Island Golf Club in November.
From major champions to Ryder Cup members to three players who have held the world’s No. 1 ranking, a Jones Cup trophy on a golfer’s résumé seems to confirm their talent and ability to make it to the winner’s circle amid the professional ranks.
Following the 2001 win of two-time PGA TOUR victor D.J. Trahan, eventual Web.com Tour champions Nicholas Thompson and Luke List were awarded their Jones Cup trophies in 2005 and 2007, respectively. In 2009, Kyle Stanley’s win at the Jones Cup paved the way for his pair of PGA TOUR wins, before a slew of other major names cut their TOUR teeth with Jones Cup titles. In 2010, it was eventual Masters Tournament champion Patrick Reed winning the Jones Cup in a playoff and, two years later, fellow future major winner Justin Thomas secured his own Jones Cup title.
In 2014 and 2015, budding Canadian stars Corey Conners and Austin Connelly came south to claim their Jones Cups before Southern California amateur legend and current PGA TOUR player Beau Hossler traveled across the country to earn the 2016 title.
Over the past two years, rising star Braden Thornberry of Ole Miss took the Jones Cup as the only player to shoot under par, before highly touted Louisiana State University incoming freshman Garrett Barber grabbed glory with a playoff win at this year’s tournament, which was held in January.
Before he became a PGA TOUR winner at the CareerBuilder Challenge in 2017, Hudson Swafford was honing his amateur game as a participant in the Jones Cup.
A three-time All-American honoree at the University of Georgia, where he graduated in 2011, Swafford competed in the Jones Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2011 (finishing T16 in his latter two appearances). A year after his final appearance, he would go on to achieve a Web.com Tour win at the Stadion Classic.
“The Jones Cup is one of the top amateur events, kind of kicking off the season with all the best college players and top amateurs,” says Swafford, who is also a resident of St. Simons Island. “It’s the elite of the elite, with all the Walker Cup hopefuls there.”
In 2010, although he did not play in the tournament himself due to nursing a shoulder injury, Swafford was still a part of it, caddying for Bulldog teammate Harris English, who would go on to finish tied for eighth that year.
Now a member at Ocean Forest, Swafford has returned to the Jones Cup for a fireside chat with participants, noting that “it’s still fun to go back and talk to the players.” And he still plays the course readily—not that he finds the track any more benign since becoming a PGA TOUR winner.
“It is not the easiest golf course,” Swafford says. “I feel like, if I’m playing well at Ocean Forest, I can take that on TOUR pretty quickly. The course makes you hit a bunch of golf shots, makes you pucker up a little bit and you just can’t relax on too many shots out there. It’s a great test of golf throughout.”
Take a closer look at the accomplishments of some of the golf greats who have competed in the Jones Cup Invitational over the years, along with their subsequent career accomplishments.
Field included John “Spider” Miller (Walker Cup captain in 2015 and 2017), John Harris (2006 PGA TOUR Commerce Bank Championship winner), Luke Donald (five-time PGA TOUR winner who was ranked No. 1 player in the world in 2011 and 2012), Bubba Watson (12 PGA TOUR victories, including the Masters Tournament in 2012 and 2014) and Lucas Glover (three PGA TOUR wins, including the 2009 U.S. Open)
Field included Webb Simpson (U.S. Open and THE PLAYERS champion with three other PGA TOUR wins) and Brandt Snedeker (eight PGA TOUR victories, including the 2012 TOUR Championship)
Field included Kevin Kisner (two-time PGA TOUR winner), Chris Kirk (four-time PGA TOUR winner) and Brian Harman (two-time PGA TOUR winner)
Field included Hudson Swafford (two-time winner of both Web.com Tour and PGA TOUR tournaments, including the RSM Classic), Gary Woodland (three PGA TOUR wins), Rickie Fowler (four PGA TOUR wins and three international victories), Dustin Johnson (18-time PGA TOUR victor, including the 2016 U.S. Open, and the world’s top-ranked player in 2017)
as well as the return of both Harman and Simpson
Field included Harris English (winner of two PGA TOUR classics and one Web.com Tour invitational), Peter Uihlein (victor in the European and Web.com tours) and Tommy Fleetwood (four-time European Tour winner with two additional international victories)
Field included Patrick Reed (2018 Masters Tournament champion with five other PGA TOUR wins, who is currently ranked second in the European Tour), Russell Henley (three-time winner of both PGA TOUR and Web.com Tour events), Chesson Hadley (PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year in 2014 and Web.com Tour Player of the Year in 2017) and Victor Dubuisson (two European Tour titles)
Field included Justin Thomas (eight-time PGA TOUR winner, including the 2017 PGA Championship, who reached No. 1 in world this year) and Jordan Spieth (two international victories and 11 PGA TOUR wins, including the Masters Tournament, U.S. Open and TOUR Championship in 2015; the same year he was ranked as the top player in the world)
Field included Ben Taylor (winner of Web.com Tour’s 2018 Club Colombia Championship), and the return of Thomas, who was that year’s Jones Cup champion
Field included Daniel Berger (two PGA TOUR wins and 2017 Presidents Cup team member)
Field included Bryson DeChambeau (fifth player to ever win the U.S. Amateur champions and NCAA individual title in the same year, 2015, who is also a two-time PGA TOUR winner with one Web.com Tour championship under his belt as well)
Field included Braden Thornberry (NCAA individual title winner in 2017) and the return of Beau Hossler, who took home the title at that year’s Jones Cup