PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Look closely, and you’ll notice there has been no shortage of parallels in Kevin Streelman’s pro career.
From looping at Whisper Rock for much-needed cash to winning the club championship there and paying his membership dues.
From having $400 in his bank account to capturing the $1 million Kodak Challenge.
From posting an 84 here in 2008 to owning Innisbrook over the weekend, when he shot 65-67, played bogey-free over the last 37 holes and earned a two-shot victory over Boo Weekley at the Tampa Bay Championship.
“It’s a total dream come true,” Streelman said Sunday after winning for the first time in 153 career starts and earning a return trip to the Masters. “I always had a dream of getting here.”
While Boo Weekley joked with the media, ate pizza and hit a few balls, waiting some three hours to see if his bogey-free 63 would stand up, Streelman was playing the best golf of his life. Clinging to a share of the lead on the treacherous back nine at the Copperhead Course, Streelman stuffed his tee shot on the difficult 13th, then tacked on another birdie on 17 to finish at 10-under 274.
That alone represents a stark contrast from the rest of his season (one top-25 finish), and especially last week, when he putted miserably on his way to a missed cut in Puerto Rico. Streelman had a productive session with his instructor Darren May at the Bears Club in South Florida, but a day later became so ill with a stomach bug that he spent 24 hours in the emergency room.
That was but a distant memory by Sunday, of course. And as he kicked back in a chair in the winner’s news conference, relieved, he peeled back the layers of a compelling backstory.
Streelman, now 34 and with more than $7 million in career earnings, graduated from Duke in 2001, but initially struggled to stick on any of the mini-tours. In fact, he doesn’t know if he even made a cut on the Gateway circuit in his first attempt. “I got my butt kicked, lost all my money,” he said.
At one point he had just $400 to his name, already at a crossroads in his fledgling career. He scrubbed clubs at Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., during the week, working from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., then playing golf until dark. On the weekends he caddied at Whisper Rock, the high-end club in town. (Years later, Streelman won the club championship over Billy Mayfair. This is his fifth year as member.)
In summer 2003, he was a finalist for an assistant coaching position at his alma mater, but didn’t receive the job. The next day, his father loaned him $400 so he could play a Monday qualifier at the Western Open, and Streelman holed a long putt on the last hole to get into his first PGA Tour event.
In 2007, his last year on the mini-tours, Streelman led the money list on both the Hooters and Gateway tours. He had a 66.5 scoring average that summer. But when it came to the first stage of Q-School, and the opportunity to earn his card, he struggled for the first three days and appeared destined for another disappointment. Instead, he ran off four birdies in the last five holes to make the cut on the number. A few weeks later, he was a PGA Tour member, no longer needing to burn through three cars or put 400,000 miles on his mom’s Nissan Altima.
“If one of those (putts) had lipped out,” he said, “I don’t know what would have happened.”
Streelman had a respectable rookie campaign in 2008, even if the nadir came here. During the third round he self-immolated during a 13-over 84 – the worst score in tournament history by a player who made the cut. “This course can do that to you,” he said. “This course gets gusty and running and it really tests you.”
That’s precisely what happened in the third round, which was a big reason why Streelman – not Jim Furyk, not Luke Donald, not Sergio Garcia – emerged victorious. He carded a bogey-free 65 Saturday, when the course became fast and fiery, to grab a share of his first 54-hole lead in three years.
On Sunday, Streelman birdied the opening hole, chipped in on the third and then saved his best shot for the dangerous par-3 13th, which has water short and right, and a narrow green. From 194 yards he hit a “hold” 5-iron to a tucked pin that dropped near the cup and settled 5 feet away.
“That was pretty special,” said his caddie, A.J. Montecinos.
“That is where I was aiming,” Streelman confirmed afterward.
That shot helped propel Streelman to a victory in something other than the Whisper Rock club championship, or the bonus competition known as the Kodak Challenge.
“People always ask me, ‘Have you won yet?’” he said. “And it’s not going to change who I am. It’s just something to put on a resume.”
Indeed, it should fit nicely above desperate caddie, and somewhere below itinerant mini-tour grinder.