Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Golf

Streelman's journey reaches victory on PGA Tour

PALM HARBOR — A few weeks ago, Kevin Streelman was about to hop on a plane for the Florida leg of the PGA Tour when he remembered the only movie he rented on his iPad was Flight, the Denzel Washington flick about, of all things, a plane crash.

"Gonna go buy a book," Streelman joked on Twitter.

Streelman's shotmaking this past weekend at the Tampa Bay Championship, as well as his steady nerves, were even more impressive than his sense of humor.

Maybe you've never heard of Streelman and, as fickle as the PGA Tour can be, maybe you'll never hear from him again. In 152 previous events on tour, Streelman had never won. He might go another 152 without winning again. Maybe he will never win again.

And while the 34-year-old might be the least-known of all those who have won here at the PGA event at Innisbrook, he is certainly a champion this event can feel good about.

This is a grinder who burned through three cars — his mom's Altima, his own Altima and then a Camry — putting more than 400,000 miles on each of them driving from this dinky tournament to that one on the mini­tours.

He was dropped by sponsors. He had to borrow $400 from his dad once just to have the money to get into a qualifier.

It wasn't all that long ago when he worked as a caddie on weekends, hauling around clubs for a bunch of country club hackers, just to make enough money for food and rent. On weekdays, he would clean clubs from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., then practice his golf game until it was too dark to see.

He was prepared to give up the dream of playing and applied to become the assistant golf coach at Duke, his alma mater. He almost got the job, too, but it went to another candidate.

There were dozens of times when he could have given up. He can't even remember all the times when a lipped-out putt at Q-school or a bad drive on a minitour could have blown up his career.

Still, Streelman forged ahead.

When you've been through all of that stuff, standing over putts and chips and drives that could determine whether you finish first or second or third at the Tampa Bay Championship really isn't that nerve-racking. Heck, he once shot 84 here, the worst score of anyone who had made the cut.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity," Streelman said. "If I shoot 80 or 60, it's going to be fun out there and enjoy it. This time I was able to finish it off. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. … I just tried to enjoy it all."

Whenever he did feel his knees getting wobbly Sunday, Streelman and his caddie meditated by reciting Bible scripture. They even sang worship songs between shots.

"We were having fun," Streelman said.

No one knows with absolutely certainty if the Tampa Bay Championship will return next year. And it would be a shame if it didn't.

The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook is beautiful, challenging and a favorite among the PGA players not named Tiger or Phil. Even without those two, the field is typically world-class and the attendance is always strong.

Yet, the lack of a sponsor could spell the end of this otherwise popular tournament. If this was the last tournament, what a way to go out.

What the 2013 Tampa Bay Championship might have lacked in late-hole drama or even big-name pizazz, it made up for with a champion who is best described as a good man, and most certainly one who has put in his share of hard work.

This isn't meant to disrespect any of the other golfers in the running Sunday. By all accounts, Cameron Tringale, Luke Donald, Greg Chalmers and Justin Leonard are nice enough fellows. And Boo Weekley, the runnerup who finished two shots behind Streelman, is an absolute hoot who would have fit right in with the cast of Hee Haw.

Dadgumit, not only did Weekley's final-round 63 leave him just short, but he had to cancel a late-afternoon bass-fishing trip over in Orlando to stick around in the event of a playoff.

But Streelman made sure there was no playoff by playing a bogey-free round punctuated with a cool-as-ice birdie putt on No. 17 that sealed the tournament.

A few minutes later on the 18th green, Streelman and his wife, Courtney, embraced with tears streaming down their faces in what must have felt like the end of a very long journey.

It was a flight with a happy ending. A deserving one, too.

     
         
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