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Len Ziehm On Golf

A busy year already, but Streelman can finally focus on the Masters

Next week’s Masters tournament may be the first highlight event of the year for most golfers, but not for Kevin Streelman.

The only Chicago area player to qualify for the Masters has had an eventful year already. Most of it has been good – but not all. Streelman returns to the PGA Tour for this week’s Shell Houston Open still celebrating the birth of his son, Rhett Davis, on March 22.

Until Rhett’s arrival it was doubtful that Streelman would even play in the Masters. His wife Courtney’s due date was on the Saturday of Masters week and the couple dealt with a difficult delivery when their first child, daughter Sophia, was born three years ago. Sophia arrived six weeks early via C-section, and Streelman had vowed he wouldn’t play in the Masters until Courtney gave birth again.

“My family is more important than any silly thing we do on grass,’’ Streelman had declared as Rhett’s delivery time closed in. “I’ll always be there for my wife.’’

With all things well on the home front Streelman confirmed on Monday that he’d play at Houston – his first tournament since back-to-back missed cuts at the Valspar Championship and Bay Hill Invitational in Florida earlier this month. His last full tournament was a tie for 17th at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Feb. 21.

“Golf wasn’t high on my priority list after that,’’ admitted Streelman. “It’s been a big month, but I’m on top of the world now.’’

Streelman left for Houston on Tuesday hoping to regain the form he had a month ago on the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing. He did little more than putt on a practice green in his basement since then.

The strong finish at Pebble Beach concluded a great month on the West Coast, as Streelman tied for 11th in the Career Builder Challenge in LaQuinta, Calif., and finished third in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Those strong finishes account for the bulk of his $814,710 in season winnings.

Other major developments in Streelman’s life came both before and after the California tournaments. In February he was named co-chairman of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council. That’s a three-year commitment as leader of a 16-player group that plays a major role in determining PGA policy.

Immediately after the Pebble Beach tournament Streelman had to pull off the circuit for three weeks to deal with a health concern of his own. Doctors advised the removal of a nickel-size mole from his stomach and that required two surgeries and more healing time.

Streelman said the surgery “came out fine,’’ but he withdrew from the Northern Trust Open at Los Angeles-based Riviera after the surgical procedure required 10 stitches. Then came the sub-par showings in Florida while Courtney’s delivery status was in limbo.

Now Streelman can focus on the Masters – the first of the year’s four major championships. He’s in the field thanks to his tie for 12th in last year’s Masters, and also won the tourney’s popular Par-3 contest in 2015.

Though Streelman, 37, has two PGA Tour wins – Tampa Bay in 2013 and Hartford in 2014, plus the Kodak Challenge special event of 2009 – he hasn’t seriously contended for a major title. His caddie, A.J. Montecinos, has some experience with that, however. He carried for champion Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship.

Streelman and Montecinos were born in the same hospital in Winfield (though in different years), and Streelman grew up in Wheaton before playing collegiately at Duke. He turned pro in 2001 and has retained his Chicago connections while establishing residence in Arizona.

He’s returned for special events at Cantigny, the public course where he first developed his game, and has long played with clubs made by Chicago manufacturer Wilson Sporting Goods. Streelman also works with Chicago swing instructor Jake Thurm.

The tie for 12th at last year’s Masters matched Streelman’s best showing in a major championship (he also tied for 12th in the 2013 PGA Championship) and his world ranking has dropped a bit from last year, to No. 116.

That’s not as high as Luke Donald, the former Northwestern star and world No. 1 in 2012. Donald will miss the Masters for the first time since 2004. He needed to be in the top 50 to get in the field off the world rankings, and he’s now No. 92. Donald has only one top-25 finish in nine events this season but came close to another on Sunday when he tied for 26th at the Puerto Rican Open.

Streelman won’t be the only Chicago area golfer at Augusta National, though. The Illinois Junior Golf Assn. will be well represented in Sunday’s Drive, Chip & Putt national finals. Schaumburg’s Emily Duan and Vernon Hills’ Christian Kim made it in the 10-11 divisions and Crystal Lake’s Eric Klutke and South Barrington’s Stephanie Su in the 12-13 age group.