Kevin Streelman may be the best feel-good story in golf these days, and maybe in all of sports.
Last month Streelman, who grew up in Winfield and built his golf game playing and working at both Cantigny and Arrowhead public courses in Wheaton, won the PGA Tour’s Tampa Bay Championship.
That got him into next week’s Masters, and it also improved the décor in the basement of his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Streelman made it to the Masters for the first time in 2011 after finishing in the top 30 on the PGA Tour’s FedEx standings in 2010. He missed the cut that time, but vowed he’d be back.
“When I left all I could think about was getting back,’’ he said. “In my basement I’ve got my first Masters invitation from 2011 framed, and I put up an empty frame next to it. I used it as motivation.’’
The motivation paid off when Streelman won his first tournament on the PGA Tour at Innisbrook’s Copperhead layout, a Florida course designed by long-time Chicago course architect Larry Packard. Packard, now 100 years old, was on hand for Streelman’s win and his son Roger was the designer at Cantigny, the 27-layout where Streelman worked to earn a college scholarship to Duke. This is where his story of extreme perseverance began.
After captaining the Duke team Streelman put 400,000 miles on three cars criss-crossing the country in search of professional tournaments. Frequently sleeping in those cars, he wasn’t earning much money and at one point his would-be financial sponsors deserted him, leaving Streelman stranded in California without the money to get home on.
Frustrated, he applied for an assistant coaching job at Duke in 2003 and was one of two finalists. He didn’t get the job, which turned out a blessing – even if it took awhile.
Streelman married and settled in Arizona where he cleaned clubs on weekday mornings and resumed work as a caddie – a job he had performed at Wheaton’s Chicago Golf Club to earn money on summer breaks from Duke – on weekends.
This time Streelman did his bag-toting at Whisper Rock, a haven for PGA Tour players — Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples are among the members — in North Scottsdale. He used the money he earned over two years there, as well as Whisper Rock’s excellent practice facilities, to get his game sharp enough for the PGA Tour. Then, while he was playing in the Puerto Rico Open as a PGA rookie in 2008, Whisper Rock owner Greg Pryhus invited him to join the club.
Not only did Streelman go from caddie to club member, he immediately won the club championship.
That was a clear indication that hard work and dedication can pay off, and now Streelman’s career has taken still another upward turn thanks to the win at Tampa Bay. Even a week later the significance of it was hard to fathom.
“It hasn’t entirely sunk in,’’ said Streelman. “It means I belong out there. It has nothing to do with money or trophies. I just love the competition. Now my dream is to be in that position in a major.’’
It could be at this year’s Masters. Streelman felt he knew Augusta National well enough to pass on an early practice round. Instead he took a two-week rest break and won’t arrive at Augusta National until Sunday.
“In 2011 I spent a few weeks there in preparation for my first Masters, but this time I had played four weeks in a row and was really exhausted,’’ Streelman said. He feels rest and better planning will produce a better result in his second try.
“The first time I was overwhelmed,’’ he said. “There were a lot of distractions from family and friends and media requirements.’’
That first Masters was more like a party. Streelman and wife Courtney rented a big house, where they stayed with both sets of parents as well as some brothers and sisters.
“We even had some dogs,’’ said Streelman. “It was fun, but a very hectic week. This time they (family members) will be there again, but Courtney and I are going to get a house by ourselves.’’
It wouldn’t be surprising if Streelman, now 34 and the winner of $7 million in five seasons on tour, made another career jump by challenging at the Masters. Just earning his first PGA Tour win – a milestone that didn’t come until his 153rd start — will change his life, however. It qualified him for the PGA Championship, the World Golf Championship events and the big-money invitationals. He isn’t sure yet whether he’ll be in the U.S. and British Opens, but life as a champion will be better than life as a journeyman.
“I’m really excited, because this helps me with scheduling,’’ said Streelman, who didn’t consider his first win a big surprise. “I had a nice start to the season, and my stats were up from last year. It showed that I’d worked hard in the offseason.’’