CROMWELL, Conn. – Kevin Streelman glided up the steep hill just left of the 18th green at TPC River Highlands, his spikes barely touching the trampled-down grass as the nearby gallery howled with appreciation. He kissed his wife Courtney, grabbed his six-month-old daughter Sophia, walked through the edge of the practice green and bounced up the 15 steps leading to the scoring trailer, a mixture of elation and bemusement splashed across his face.
When he was offered congratulations by one observer, all he could do was shake his head and answer, “I don’t even know what just happened.”
Here’s what happened: Streelman enjoyed one of the most ridiculous Sunday afternoon performances we’ll ever see.
He posted a second consecutive 6-under 64 on the weekend.
He one-putted the final 10 greens.
He birdied the last seven holes of the round.
He came back from seven strokes down with 10 holes to play.
And 32 minutes after gliding up that hill and kissing his wife and grabbing his daughter and bouncing up those steps and wondering what just happened, he was the last man standing as the Travelers Championship winner.
“I am a little shocked, but to do it in that fashion is something that I'll never forget,” Streelman said. “Birdie the last seven? To even say it is crazy.”
But none of it – not the one-putts nor the birdies nor the comeback – was the most impressive part of the victory.
No, the most impressive part was that Streelman pulled off his own version of Babe Ruth’s called shot or Joe Namath’s guarantee. Walking off the ninth green, he turned to caddie A.J. Montecinos and offered a confident proclamation.
“He goes, ‘We’re going to shoot 29 on the back,’” Montecinos later recounted.
He was wrong. He shot 28 instead.
There are improbable wins and unlikely wins, but this one was an unfathomable win. After playing the first seven holes in 2 over and rendering himself an afterthought, well behind proven champions Sergio Garcia, K.J. Choi and Aaron Baddeley atop the leaderboard, Streelman entered what he – and so many athletes before him – referred to as "the zone."
“When athletes talk about being in the zone, everything is really slow, and it's really clear and concise, and it's very vivid,” he explained. “The lines are easy to see. The hole seems to appear bigger. It's something we just wish we could be in every week, but to be honest, it kind of clicked on that ninth green when I started just seeing the lines very clear.
“It's almost to a point it doesn't matter how you read the putts, because you just know they're going in before you hit them.”
Just how in the zone was Streelman over those final 10 holes? Let’s count the ways.
He holed a 10-footer on the ninth for his first birdie of the day. Then he saved par from five feet on the 10th and again from nine feet on the 11th.
The rest of the day’s results looked like video game stats on the easiest level. A birdie from seven feet on 12, from four feet on 13, from 20 feet on 14, from 12 feet on 15, from 37 feet – yes, 37 feet! - on 16, from three feet on 17 and from eight feet on 18.
“It can kind of come and go at times, but it's a combination of calmness, confidence, resting, trust,” he said of being in the zone. “Inner training can come out naturally. Sometimes we try and force our training to come out, force a score or force a birdie and it doesn't happen, but when we just relax and just let it happen, I think that's when kind of greatness can come out.”
Greatness hasn’t always come out of Streelman. This is a player who was a self-proclaimed “journeyman” coming out of Duke University. He toiled the dark reaches of mini-tour life for years, often going days without eating anything but Taco Bell. He was a caddie at Whisper Rock, really not that long ago.
And so it should come as symbolic that the player who vividly remembers those days, who is now a member at the club where he caddied, who offers clubs and balls to struggling young pros who remind him of himself, won in unfathomable fashion.
Nothing has ever come easy for Streelman. He’s always had to work a little harder than the competition. He's been forced to dig deep when things were going against him.
“It took me six years of that to get out the first year out here,” he said. “And to now be a multiple-time winner out here is just amazing. It's really been a dream come true.”
More than an hour after climbing those steps and wondering what just happened, Streelman sat next to the gleaming silver trophy, his hands still trembling and his voice still quivering. He finally realized exactly what had happened. He just wasn’t sure he could really believe it.