LINKS PLAYERS MAGAZINE, 2010 ANNUAL EDITION

LETTING GO OF THE TROPHIES

By Jeff Hopper

Strive. Struggle. Battle.

Kevin Streelman may be a professional golfer, but he speaks the words of a boxer in the ring. Or a Marine on wartime watch.

Streelman knows the opposition, the enemy. He’s not about to back down. Not if he can hold to the commitments that will lead him to win in the end.

And Streelman knows this: his greatest enemy, the one who would take him down a course that he wants so firmly to avoid, is himself. His own worries about where he stands on this money list or that leaderboard, his own desires for what he calls “things of the world,” his own ill treatment of the people he should love best—these are the enemies against which Streelman fights.

But here’s the cool thing: he’s really excited about it all. No wonder he’s no longer the guy he was just a few years ago, with $400 to his name, looking to play anywhere they’d have him…

Streelman’s path to the PGA Tour started in the same way many do. He’d chase the ball around with his family on the weekends as a boy. But he loved basketball more, and tennis. It wasn’t until high school that Streelman’s golf prowess started to outdistance his tennis skills. In the summer before his senior year, he won several junior golf tournaments, caught the attention of college coaches, and found himself on his way to Duke University—where he could compete as a golfer and still enjoy some of the best college basketball in the country.

“It was great,” Streelman recalls. “Beautiful golf course there, great facilities, we played in a great conference against some stiff competition. I left a better golfer and I’d say a better person than when I got there.”

His competitive success in college—just one tournament win, which came as a senior—probably wasn’t enough to point the way to a PGA Tour career. But Streelman likes to say that he was following “the Zach Johnson model.” If you know the story of the 2007 Masters champion, you know that Johnson emerged from obscurity at Drake University to become one of the Tour’s elite players.

Here’s how Streelman describes his own Johnson-like progress: “I continued sticking with it and tried to improve a little bit each day. I kept my nose to the grindstone, really working at it, and slowly but surely kept getting a little better, a little better on the mini-tours.” Yes, there are some athlete’s clichés in there, but Streelman saw enough development in his game that he kept moving forward.

Not that his determination didn’t meet up with more than a little frustration. “It’s a lot of time on the road, a lot of time by yourself, just driving in your car,” Streelman says. As a matter of fact, in his five or six years on the mini-tours, Streelman shed cars like old skins, chugging cross country several times and topping 400,000 miles.

And then there was the matter of trying to keep himself fed and clothed and everything else we’d call basic. “I’d do whatever I could,” he says. “I’d caddie at courses. I worked in Scottsdale, scrubbing clubs just to get the free golf so I could practice and play.”

Then in 2007, all the hard work paid off in the way that every young professional dreams it will. Streelman made it through Tour Qualifying School and earned his card for the 2008 season. This from a guy who had made only one cut ever on either the PGA or the Nationwide Tour.

Yet few rookies find fire as quickly as Streelman did. By his third tournament, the Buick Invitational in San Diego, Streelman was playing in the final group on Saturday. And just to amp up the noise around his wet ears, he was paired with Stewart Cink and Tiger Woods.

“That was an eye-opening experience for me,” Streelman remembers with a smile. “The chaos that surrounds that sort of grouping was a ton of fun for me. But it was also a great experience to learn from going forward. After that, everything seemed a little bit smaller in comparison.”

Streelman faltered on the weekend and finished tied for 29th in San Diego, but it was part of that same slow-but-steady progress that he had come to recognize as growth. He made the cut in six of his first eight events; then, beginning in mid-May, Streelman made 17 of 18 cuts to close his rookie season—a truly remarkable stretch for a first-timer.

The highlight came at The Barclays in August, when he led going into the final round and his birdie putt burned the cup at the last, leaving him a shot out of a playoff with Sergio Garcia and eventual winner Vijay Singh. Still, the payday was worth nearly $300,000, which secured Streelman’s return in 2009 and set him up for the greatest achievement of his career.

From the outset of the 2009 season, one of the Tour’s main objectives was to highlight a season-long competition called the Kodak Challenge. Spanning 30 different holes—no more than one per tournament—the Challenge took the players’ best 18 scores from those holes and compiled an aggregate total in relation to par. The prize? One million dollars. Not a penny for second place.

Few players paid much attention to the competition in the early part of the season, but Streelman knew he was hanging around the top, and when he took the lead in the middle of the summer, he understood what was at stake. So much so, in fact, that he added tournaments to his schedule, particularly when the pre-selected hole was a par-5. He knew he couldn’t afford to let other players collect birdies on these holes while he was at home chasing the dog.

But the decision to keep playing and protect the lead added a measure of tension as well. “It felt like the 72nd- hole pressure of a normal PGA Tour event every week that I stepped onto a Kodak Challenge hole,” Streelman says. “It was hard to concentrate on that as well as the tournament I was playing in.”

With the season’s penultimate event, the Viking Classic in Mississippi, rained out, Streelman entered the finale, the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Walt Disney World, with a two-shot lead over Bo Van Pelt in the Challenge. The hole for that week was the par-4 seventeenth of the Magnolia Course. Because the event is an extensive pro-am, it is played on two courses, meaning that players who did not make the cut would have only one chance at the Kodak Challenge hole. But if Streelman could make a par, he would force Van Pelt to hole a shot from the fairway for a tie. Unlikely.

Streelman came to the seventeenth for the first time on Friday. A birdie would secure the Kodak Challenge and the $1 million.

Coolly, Streelman sent his drive straight down the fairway. He was within a sand wedge’s distance of his goal. And to relieve the tension, one of the amateurs in his group, baseball star Johnny Damon, sent his approach crashing into the bleachers well left of the green. This took a bit of the edge off, and when Streelman made his swing, he knew he had what he wanted: a ball headed straight at the flag. The shot came to rest three feet below the hole, and not too many minutes later, Streelman set off an unusual mid-round Friday celebration by sending his putt to the bottom of the cup.

He gave his achievement a fist pump, circled the green with a round of high-fives for the nearby fans, and held the trophy for all to see. Then he did the strangest thing of all: he ran off to the eighteenth tee to finish his round.

In a way, it ended up being a $2 million afternoon for Streelman. He won the winner-take-all Kodak Challenge, and at the same time he made the cut, ensuring that he would break the $1 million mark for his season’s earnings, since he had entered the event at $995,000.

So what would you do with the money from a weekend like that?

The season before, when Streelman had made a fair take as a rookie, he jettisoned that last mini-tour car, a Toyota Camry, and purchased his childhood dream car, a Porsche 911. This time, with his one personal desire taken care of, Streelman had other plans. He doled out his Kodak Challenge winnings to his parents and his wife’s parents to help them pay off their homes. His siblings got some too, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which has become a favorite cause.

Why was Streelman so generous? Listen: “It’s not my money anyway.” Odd words from a young man (Streelman is 31) who held an exceedingly big check with his name on it. And of course they beg another question: whose money is it, then?

“For me, it wasn’t too many years ago that I had really nothing but my set of clubs and the love of my parents and friends,” Streelman says. “God’s blessed us with what we have now. And if it’s God’s money, then a lot of other things fall into place, a lot of things take on a new priority.”

It’s hard to say if this makes sense for a golfer, whose success can be fleeting. Maybe it’s wiser to hold on to the earnings of a big season, hedging against the possible leanness of the next. Yet that’s not what goes through Streelman’s mind. Or his wife’s.

“Courtney and I always look at things like if I were to break my back tomorrow and never get to play golf again, would we be OK? In that regard, we didn’t want to have any debt going forward. So we paid off our house and our cars. From here on out, it’s all about security and all about helping those less fortunate. Being able to give is a lot better than being able to receive in my mind. We just talk about it and pray about it and decide together what we want to do. It just always seems to come out to a fair number. You take it as it comes.”

Gulp. Nothing like another’s rich perspective to set you on your heels.

But Streelman would be quick to tell you that this insight, too, is part of his struggle, his fight to break free from what the world—his world—expects from him.

A Tour player’s continued existence as a Tour player is dependent on one thing: winning. You don’t necessarily have to lift a trophy every season, but you have to get close enough to catch the shine off one of those babies, because that’s the only way you are going to make enough money to stay high enough on the earnings list to finish within the top 125 players to keep your card. It’s a fierce string of demands, and it’s one tough way to have your worth measured.

“It’s so hard when you’re constantly struggling with your money list position and your scores are published in every newspaper in the country,” Streelman says. “I constantly fight this battle. The key is to remember that whether I shoot 60 or 85, God looks at me the same way. The media tells you, ‘Oh, you’re doing well on the money list, you’re not doing well on the money list.’ But all these are worldly numbers that in God’s mind, He doesn’t really care about. I struggle to let go of meaningless trophies, per se, or meaningless lists and rankings.”

So what does Streelman replace these normal pursuits with? “For me, the crazy array of emotions that you deal with on the golf course is very demanding. You have to really take note of how you react to different situations and ask, ‘What does God want me to do here? What would make Him proud right now?’ And I have to make the changes necessary in order to accommodate that.”

Revealed this way, you might guess that Streelman’s whole life has been steeped in spiritual pursuits, that he is a product of well-learned catechisms. He did grow up in church, where he was introduced to Jesus Christ as a friend and Savior. But he readily admits that he made “women and beer” more important than God during his college years, and that he stumbled spiritually until he met Courtney at a breakfast counter in Las Vegas. “If we didn’t have God’s intervention, there’s no way we could have met at that moment,” he says. “That was a moment where I was not looking for my wife and—boom!—there she was.”

And though he says he definitely knew Jesus at that time, “I thought I was walking with the Lord, but in reality I wasn’t. Through Courtney, God kind of reignited a lot of passion for Him and His brilliance in my life. It’s been fun to let that happen and serve Him as well as I can.”

But even that service comes with struggle. “It’s a constant battle,” Streelman says, employing those soldier’s words that seem fitting when you know the story of Streelman’s enduring journey. “But the more you strive and the more you feel that internal struggle is good. I think it’s good to say, ‘You know, maybe a year ago I would have made this decision, but this time I’m not. My wife is going to get her way this time. This means a lot to her, so I need to let go of my ego and just accept that and relish that and be the best husband I can be right now.’”

Kevin Streelman is not a philosopher. He’s a golfer. But he has captured something a lot of athletes would rather just set aside: There is an intense conflict between the need to surrender what does not matter and the need to keep fighting if you are ever to reach your ultimate goal.

For Streelman, the answer may lie best in defining the terms. The ultimate goal in professional golf is to collect trophies, to win. But the ultimate goal in life—“to walk like Christ, to walk the way He did”—is a much greater priority and requires even more fight than it takes to win a major championship. And paradoxically, it is a fight won only when we give up what we want and go after what God has for us.

“It has all been an up-and-down battle,” Streelman says as he enters his third full year on Tour, “but I feel now that I am in such a great place. I am looking forward to continued development and enjoyment, doing my best to reflect Christ’s love and reflect His glory and share that within my relationships.”

COPYRIGHT 2010 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Kevin Streelman

    2 PGA Tour wins: 2013 Tampa Bay Championship, 2014 Travelers Championship

    2009 Winner of the $1 Million Kodak Challenge