Our Man in Kauai

10 Questions with Professional Oliver Jones

By Will CebronOctober 16, 2021Photos by Will Cebron

Everyone agrees that golf is a unique combination of physical skill and mental strength. To some, the physical part is easy and the mental bit is the tough part. Others feel the opposite and some of us can't make sense of any of it. When it comes to learning how to play golf we all need different things, but the one common necessity is a teacher who can cut through everything and make it all make sense to you.

The sign of a good teacher is the way in which they can get you to deeply understand both the how and the why. That's what makes Oliver Jones unique. Over the course of several years and a multitude of instructors I am still amazed at how effectively Oliver can communicate to his students. His ability to read the room is impressive. Depending on what the student needs, Oliver can get highly technical or super simple. In an ever confusing game, Oliver helps you walk away inspired and confident.

Oliver's resume reads like our top 10 list of places to play — from Fisher's Island to Bandon Dunes — and he's now the Assistant Professional at Kukui'ula in Kauai. We wanted to talk to him about his path in golf, what inspires him and how we are all just trying to have fun with this game we love. Our Q&A is below. Hope you like it.

ACL: Let's start at the beginning. What first attracted you to golf?

Oliver Jones: Great question. In the beginning, golf was just a game I played with my dad. So growing up in Montana, the golf season was short, so it almost felt like a novelty. When you're a kid and your parents would be like, let's go bowling. And if they weren't avid bowlers, it was just kind of like this novelty. And so that's what golf was at the beginning. It's this game that you can play for about 60 days in the summer in July and August. And my sophomore year of high school, I played every day of the summer, I just loved it. And in Montana, it doesn't get dark until 9:45pm at night. You could tee off at 6:00 PM and squeak in nine or 13 holes. And then when Spring came around and it was time to play football. I still wanted to golf. So I went out for the golf team and the rest is history. I ended up getting into the golf business after that, but it was really the game that attracted me. I got addicted to playing the game and trying to shoot my best score, like a lot of the people who get the bug.

Take me through what inspired the move to Kauai, obviously pretty it is vastly different from Montana.

Let me back up a little bit. After high school, I found out about these programs where you could major in golf. There’s 14 of them and they're at different universities across the country, you get a business degree and your PGA card in four years. And the one that I chose was closest to home, while still being really far away in New Mexico. And funny enough, my dad had gone there for graduate school — to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. When I got there, I found out that they had a hundred percent internship placement.

Essentially, they would just loan out their students to these country clubs around the U.S. to work the cart barn, caddy or work in the pro shop. And each year you could move up and learn a different portion of the business. I found out that you could work at Shinnecock, Wingfoot, and Cypress Point — it was possible to get a job at these really nice places. So my goal became let's work at the coolest, nicest places. And so my first job in golf, having never worked anywhere before, was at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which is now a golf mecca. The number one golf resort in the world and I worked there.

I had some success and each relationship I've made with the head pro or the professional staff has allowed me to move about and have a new experience. So I worked at Bandon and then that got me a job at this really, really old school club in New York called Fisher's Island Club. I worked there for five years during the summers, and then each winter, I would either go back to school or go to a different place.

One winter, I ended up at Kapalua on Maui and I spent seven months there as an assistant. It had such an amazing vibe. And while I was there, I met my current fiancé. We're getting married soon and we moved to a couple different places after that, but we always wanted to come back to Hawaii. And so this opportunity at Kukui'ula came open and I was like, heck yeah, let's do it. And that was two and a half years ago, and we’re still here.

How does a game differ here compared to some of the other places you've worked or taught? You talked about Bandon Dunes and all these other places.

I would say there's three things to address from that question. Number one is the type of facility. Number two is the weather. Number three is the culture.

Let’s start with the type of facility. Kukui'ula is a mashup of every type of facility. It's a private club, but it's also a resort that has a lodge where guests come and stay, often for 10 or 12 days. And if they like it enough, maybe they buy a home and become a member. And then it also has a bit of a public element as local Kauai residents can play. The other facilities I've worked at are usually one thing. Bandon Dunes was a resort. Kapalua was a resort. Fisher’s Island Club was a private club. Park Meadows was a private club. Pebble Beach was a resort. At a resort, it's a lot of small relationships because people are coming for corporate golf or to a clinic. Whereas at a private club, and this is my favorite type, you build relationships with the individuals that are members of your club and help them develop their game. I had a guy come up to me the other day on the porch here at Kukuiula. He'd said “I'm a returning lodge guest. You gave me a lesson two and a half years ago. I really appreciate your tips on using my driver. It's really helped me immensely.” And then I have guys that I've taught once a week for a year and you really get to know their game and their body and how they move, how they're developing, what they do, which is really neat.

Now the second number weather is pretty self explanatory, so let's talk about the third number - culture. On the East coast, the culture is very buttoned up. People still get dressed up in a shirt and tie and go to dinner on Sunday night at the club. I would say on the West coast, that doesn't happen. Even Pebble Beach, which was very formal by definition is much more relaxed than any East coast club. At Fisher's Island Club, Shinnecock Hills, these are places where you need to mind your P's & Q's, where a golf pro will be wearing slacks. A golf pro might have his top button buttoned, and it's going to be all crew cuts, clean shaven, no beards. Whereas out west, you can kind of let your hair down a little bit. Right? You might be able to grow a beard. And that's just based on history and tradition. I would say that's almost the Master’s effect where you have all these clubs who are holding onto the tradition, unlike any other, and then West, you have a different relaxed culture, and out here in Hawaii, it's really the Aloha spirit.

People think the Aloha spirit means you're really, really slow, but what it means is there's just nothing to worry about. No reason to rush around. Every day is going to be between 72 and 84 degrees, and it’s going to be sunny at some point in the day. So where on the East coast, everyone is rushing during that 90 to 100 day period to get their golf in, it’s a bit more relaxed here on Kauai. And from a cultural standpoint, people come out and they want to relax. We have plenty of East coasters that come out here, they undo the top button, they put on a pair of shorts and they relax a little bit. That's the big difference here versus where I've taught before - I have a GM that wants me to wear shorts, to be relaxed and to look relaxed because they want people to walk through the door and lower their blood pressure.

The other thing is mentally with golf. In Hawaii people understand that golf is about being present and detaching yourself from the result. And you see a lot of people who have a ton of wisdom out in Hawaii, whether it’s the local guy at the muni or club member who's spent his time engrossing himself in yoga and mindfulness and things that are more prevalent out here.

So, those are the ways that it differs. And I have to be honest. I love to put on my khakis and button my top button and keep it high and tight. I love that. And I love the banter and I love the two fingers of whiskey on ice and being at the cocktail party with the loafers. I love that. And I love putting on a pair of board shorts and hitting balls at the range in Hawaii. They're very different, but they're both amazing cultures.

So you spend a ton of time at a golf course. How often do you get out and do you have any sort of routine?

It's all routine. I learned that from the first pro that I really worked for very closely with, which is Dan Colvin, the director of golf at Fisher’s Island Club. He had a routine and he stuck to it militantly, and it allowed him to get the most amount of golf in his week. And trust me, he was busy. Everybody wanted to talk to him every second of every day. He had a big membership and there were a lot of asks and a lot of emails and a lot of requests from both outside the club and inside the club and a lot of duties that fell on him. I copied that and so what I do is every day, I'm at the club for about 10 or 11 hours. I get here between seven and eight and I leave between five and six, sometimes six and seven. I reserve the afternoons for teaching and playing with members.

I would say to all of the golf pros out there, who say they never play or can’t find the time, you're never going to unless you schedule it and you block it off in advance. And that's the thing that you have to do.

The other ritual I have is that I go the last 30 minutes that the range is open and hit pitch shots in the short game area. I did that, gosh, almost every day for a year and it just made it really easy to go out and play. Even if my game wasn't quite sharp enough from a full swing standpoint, I could make a lot of pars because my pitching and my bunker shots were always in really good order. That's a good lesson for some of the older folks that are trying to improve their game. You may not have enough energy to hit three or four baskets with a driver, but you might have enough energy to hit a couple baskets worth of quarter pitch shots or chips around the green and get that short game involved. Because if we're honest, we're not going to hit the green all the time. We're not going to hit the fairway all the time, but if we can hit two or three shots and get near the green and get up and down, that's a fun day.

So you’ve played a lot of great places over your career. What's your favorite and why?

Oh gosh, that's an unfair question. My favorite golf course is Fisher's Island Club in New York but I have some bias since I spent five years there. I think it's ranked around 10 in the country and 16 in the world, and I've played courses that are ranked higher than it. But for me, from a history standpoint, from a playability standpoint, it is incredible. And if any of you get an invitation to play there, definitely do it. I would say it's in the same conversation as Augusta, Cypress or Shinnecock. It's absolutely incredible. 18 greens, tees, fairways on the ocean. The wind changes direction. You see three different bodies of water when you're on it. You see the Long Island Sound, you see the New London Sound, you see the Atlantic Ocean. It's incredible.

I see a Callaway in your bag. Tell me how you landed on Callaway and if you've got a favorite club in there.

So when you're an assistant and you're first getting into golf or you're anybody who's new in golf, your goal is that you want to be on staff with a golf company. It's a huge deal and it eats at you to pay for your clubs, because you know if the circumstances are right, maybe you'd be able to get some clubs from a company and get on with them. So two or three years into internships, I had really wanted to get on with somebody. And then my first year as an assistant in New York at the end of the year, the Callaway rep came and he said, you know, nobody here is on staff with Callaway at the club.

And they like to have someone at each club so somebody is promoting their brand to different members. And at one of these nicer clubs, it's easier to get a relationship with a club manufacturer because they want people who are influential at these nicer clubs to play their products. The goal is that they'll tell their friends about it and the brand will have a good reputation in these circles. And this rep was Josh Rifkin. An awesome guy, just retired from Callaway. He was our rep and he asked if I'd be interested in playing the irons and the wedges that winter when I went down to Florida to work. I said I would be ecstatic. I had a hodgepodge of clubs that I had collected between high school and college that I was playing TaylorMade, Cleveland, Callaway wedges. It was just a collection, very eclectic. And, he put me on Callaway staff and I'll never forget that and I've always been so thankful. And I remember Dan, the first pro I worked for, he said, it's a big deal to get on staff with a club company, you should be really, really excited and proud of that. And I never forgot that even if I didn't quite realize what a big deal it is to have them have that faith in you. And when I moved to Utah, they transferred my staff deal to Utah and the rep took me on there. Then I went to California and they transferred my staff deal there. And when I moved to California, I really wasn't an assistant. I had taken an intern job at Pebble Beach to get my foot in the door. And so I wouldn't have had a staff deal, but I had my Callaway one that had carried over. And so they took care of me. And then when I moved out here, there's an awesome rep on Oahu for Callaway. He's one of their best reps in the country, his name's Joey, and he brought me on to Callaway staff, even though they already had somebody with Callaway.

And so my favorite club is their driver, the new Epic Speed. It's awesome. I have the max LS head. So for all you club junkies out there, I wouldn't say it's like the longest driver from a ball speed standpoint. Obviously, everybody's a little bit different, but I just cannot mishit the thing. The club is giant, it's like a bat and you can just go at it as hard as you want and it goes pretty straight. I like the forgiveness in it, but they've got a great lineup of sticks this year. The proof's in the pudding, all the Apex stuff is incredible.

Who inspires you?

Well since the pandemic began, I’m really inspired by all of the small businesses who have been fighting, especially the ones who've gotten creative and changed their business. You go into a diner that was a dinosaur with old menus and all of a sudden they've got the toast app and you can order from your phone, pay from your phone, they've changed their waiters into delivery people. That innovation is pretty amazing.

And if you transfer that to golf, I'm very inspired by Bryson DeChambeau and what he's doing to innovate. I'm inspired by anybody who innovates from a golf standpoint. The ball speeds and the club head speeds that these guys are generating on the tour and the way that they're moving their body is incredible. If you look at some of these younger guys like Matt Wolff, Bryson, Justin Thomas, and Xander Schauffele. These guys are hitting the ball way further than 2001 Tiger Woods ever would have imagined. And that was when he and John Daley were the first guys to really crush it.

I'm also inspired by the club golfer who wants to improve their game or by the person who wants to pick up the game of golf. We have a program that we do every Wednesday called Operation 36, which you can look up online. Basically these guys from North Carolina created this type of golf where anybody can play it. So I get really inspired on Wednesdays when we do that, when I have somebody who has never played before, in his or her fifties or sixties, who wants a sport, a pastime. He or she goes out there knowing that they may look like a fool, accepting it and getting over that fear so that they can participate and be part of the game.

I've seen countless people this year trying to learn how to play the game of golf, and I'll tell you it makes me excited as a coach. All these people are getting hooked on the game. There’s obviously been a huge uptick this year, but I think we're trending in the right direction.

So you're a lefty, but you can effectively play righty and lefty.

I can play golf right-handed, yes.

How did that, how did that happen? So how did it,

It happened about eight years ago. I had a buddy who was really obsessed with Mac O’Grady. Mac was kind of the first Bryson, he knew everything about golf. He was really innovative. He wanted to use computers and graphs to figure out the swing. He was really obsessed with Homer Kelley's book, the Golfing Machine. He was an incredible golfer on the PGA tour, and he learned how to play lefty and righty. He's a right-handed golfer and, and he followed this methodology with the Golfing Machine, but his real gift to the game was his coaching. One of the cool videos I've ever seen is Mac has a glove in both back pockets. And he puts on the glove on his left hand and he hits a beautiful drive, righty. And then he takes it off, switches gloves, switches sides, and hits a beautiful drive but lefty. And I thought that would be a cool parlor trick to have if I'm going to play golf forever.

A couple of years ago, a guy came to New Mexico where I was going to school and gave us a clinic. I remember him saying you may not be there yet, but at some point you will lose touch with what it feels like to not be any good at this game. I thought that was interesting, because I was like man I'm not very good right now. And I'm pretty sure I'm not going to forget what it feels like to chunk one. But what I’ve come to realize is if you play enough, you get the muscle memory and it starts to become automatic for you. So one day, I felt like I was starting to lose touch with what it felt like to be a beginner. And so I told myself that I had to teach myself how to play right-handed.

The other thing is I would be in lessons and people would ask me to hit one and they'd have right-handed clubs because everybody's right-handed. I realized as a golf pro that your ability to demonstrate how to do it is maybe your biggest asset. Your ability to show how to do it, be able to do what you're saying is a massive part of being a golf pro. And so I was like, well, if I can't demonstrate how to hit a pitch right-hand and if I can't teach myself how to pitch right-handed, how do I expect to teach other people how to do that? So I taught myself how to do it. And, funny enough, I guess I'm pretty good at it because I can do it now.

I went out and played from the white tees right-handed and I have no speed. That's the thing that I have to develop. And it's funny because that's the thing that everybody has to find and learn. It seems like that's the big gap for us as coaches - teaching people how to gain speed and be able to hit the ball far. It's not natural for everyone. And you know I missed a lot of shots and it felt like when I was like 12 and trying to learn the game. I’d challenge other coaches to play left-handed and feel what your students are going through. I know there are so many coaches that already do that, but that's why I tried to figure it out. And I wouldn't say that I have much of a game right-handed, but if I had to go out and play golf right-handed, which has happened before, where I didn't have clubs, I could go and enjoy it. It'd be fun and that's all that matters.

Any parting words of wisdom for everyone out there trying to improve their game?

Yea I would say there are a few keys to improving your game. It's basically a further explanation of the old saying that golf is played in the six inches between your ears. The number one thing is that people are so obsessed with the result that it robs them of the feeling in their body or in their kinesthetic awareness of how they hit the shot. They hit it well and they look up and they're like, great! Their mind goes blank and they can't think of what happened or they top it and the shaft vibrates and they freak out and they're like ahh I'm terrible. But just on the other side of that, if you can quiet it down, is being able to feel how to change it.

Then I'd say the other thing is controlling your ego. It's a lot like the rest of life, you hit one and you get mad. Well, why are you mad? Do you think you should be better? You never practiced. And if you do practice a lot and you still aren't good, then you need to be realistic about divorcing yourself from the result and being okay with where you're at.

I think that that's the biggest key to improvement. When people let go and they allow themselves to hit bad shots, they allow themselves to hit good shots and bad shots and just play. You don't operate a piano, you don't operate a guitar, you play it. You don't operate golf, you play it. You're going to hit some bad shots when you play, just as you’ll play some bad notes. You have to allow yourself to do that. So that'd be my parting wisdom.