Kevin Streelman: Paid His Dues in Blood, Sweat and Years

Because I was covering the LPGA Founders Cup last week, I made note of Kevin Streelman’s first win at the Tampa Bay Championship, but I didn’t spend any time reading the transcripts because I knew Bay Hill was coming up this week; time to move along.

But after reading Tiger’s first round interview and the leader, Justin Rose’s, I thought I’d see what kind of meat I could find in Streelman’s victory media session. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a guy who has been beating his brains out on the mini-tours and then the PGA Tour trying to get better and it all came together for him at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. 

Yeah, this is a dream come true.  I think 153rd event on the Tour, many, many events before that on the Hooters Tour and Gateway Tour and Dakotas Tour.  Always had a dream of getting here.

And so to get this is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent late into the evening and getting up early in the morning, and it’s really a dream come true.

But why did he think it took him so long to notch his first win? Listen carefully to the language that he uses here; it’s all transformational. He finally realized that he was no longer a journeyman Tour pro just hanging on. He’d been out there long enough to know what it takes and realized that he’d done all of the work to deserve his win:

I don’t know.  I guess level of comfort, level of confidence, level of saying it’s just kind of time, a level of saying I’ve put in the work.  And seeing my buddy, Mike Thompson win [Honda], was awesome.  See all the Americans doing well, pretty cool.

I kept it one shot at a time pretty well today.  I think that’s what I can go back on.  I was really at peace with whatever the result may be, doesn’t really matter.  Had bigger things in mind, long‑term visions of [my] career and wasn’t going to let one week, great or bad, dictate that.

So got long‑term plans and we’re sticking to that process and hopefully these are just going to be the results now.

People always ask you, have you won yet?  And it’s not going to change who I am.  It’s just something to put on a resumé.  It’s really nothing more than that.  But I’m very thankful and it means a lot to me and my team and people that I’ve surrounded myself with.  Hopefully we can do it again.  This is a lot of fun.

And he had a very simple strategy for how he was going to play on Sunday: it’s so counterintuitive but, he and his caddie just let go of results:

I had very solid ball‑striking all week.  AJ and I kept it very simple.  We just were picking targets and picking the right club and just swinging.  It was letting go of results.  We were meditating on a lot of Scripture together.  We were singing together.  We were having fun.  That’s when I play my best is when I’m just enjoying myself.

I said, “I’m thankful for the opportunity.  If I shoot 80 or 60, it’s going to be fun out there and enjoy it.” And this time I was able to finish it off, and sometimes you don’t and sometimes you do.

The following story about his early days as a pro truly impressed me. He had no money and had to rely on sponsors. And when that fell through, he went to work as a caddie at Whisper Rock Golf Club, the current Tour players’ hangout in Scottsdale:

I came out to Phoenix my first time — I graduated [Duke] in 2001 and I came out to Phoenix in 2002 for the Gateway Tour in the first summer that it was open.  I don’t know if I made a cut.  Got my butt kicked.  Lost all my money.

Fell in love with the area, though.  I loved Scottsdale from then on.  Left town kind of with my head down and went back to Chicago and very long story short, was abandoned by another group of sponsors in San Diego a year later.  And unfortunately I kept the guy’s card who lived up in Cota de Caza, gave him a call, said, I don’t know what to do, I have no money.

I had just Monday qualified for Pebble the week before and missed at Torrey.  Called these guys in Chicago and to this day they have not picked up the phone.  I was there, had about $400 to my name, could have driven back to Chicago and my family or stick it out.  They kind of gave me some money to get going back on the Hooters Tour and played all right.

And then Courtney and I met, wanted to get back to Scottsdale, caddied at Whisper Rock and scrubbing clubs at Kierland Golf Course on the weekdays, worked from about 6:00 to 1:00 and I would play golf from 2:00 till dark, and on the weekends I would caddie up at Whisper Rock in order to actually make decent money.

Then my rookie year, Gregg Tryhus [the owner] called me.  I was at Puerto Rico and invited me to join him at Whisper Rock and now going on my fifth year as a member.  Won the club championship my rookie year.  Went from caddie to club champion at Whisper Rock which is a pretty cool story.

This is all good and cheery now that we know the ending, but it was dark days for a couple of years while it all sorted itself out. But there were flickerings of light that kept the dream alive:

The funny story is the assistant coaching job at Duke came up, and it came down to me and one other guy.  Went and interviewed and came down to the two of us, and I didn’t get it.

So that same — this had to be 2004, because that’s when Mike Weir won the Masters — it was 2003, right after he won.  And Western Open, I remember I got told Friday, I didn’t get the job.

My dad gave me $400 to play the qualifier for Western Open, I make a long putt on the last hole to get in and on the next day I’m in the locker room and Mike Weir, Masters Champion, locker is next to mine. My first‑ever Tour event and so nervous and excited and I go, “Mr.Weir, mind if I play a practice round with you today?”

He was awesome.  He invited me, said “Love to have ya,” showed us how to use yardage books and things we needed to know.  Shot 78‑77, missed the cut.  That practice round with Mike, especially coming right after his Masters win, just said, you know, he’s much better than I am but I think I can hang.

And it kind of really gave me that kind of kick in the butt to say, if you’re going to do this, you need to get serious about it and you need to, watching him hit his wedges, watching him putt, that was different.  So seven, eight years in the making.

And he learned a lot about how to get around a golf course from Weir:

It was mostly his short game and wedge discipline of his wedge distances, the way he looked at a golf course, getting angles.  Coming out of college, you just hit it as far as you can and try to hit as close to the green as you can and you don’t necessarily think, oh, I’ve got 55 yards to a front pin.  Maybe it would be better to have 85 or 90 yards and hit a full wedge in rather than trying to hit a little flip wedge.

So things like that, kind of people tell you, but you need to actually see and believe firsthand to actually start ingraining that.  And that still to this day is what I’m working a lot harder at is my distances inside of 150 yards.

When my coach and I looked at our stats, I think I’m second on Tour in overall driving, and so he said, this is incredible, this is great, but maybe we need to spend a little less time driving, 125 to 150 yards, do things to win golf tournaments, you need to dial those numbers in, and this week I was able to.

And so he gets to the Tour and he’s playing with all these great players, but not really having the success he had hope for. How did he deal with the doubts he must have had?

Obviously we play with all the different guys, and seeing — Webb [Simpson] is probably my best friend out here on Tour.  I’ve played a lot of golf with him.  He’s obviously an incredible player, but I think I can hang with him, too.  To see what he’s done [2012 US Open Champion], and what’s different, a lot of it’s mental.  Nothing ruffles him on the golf course.

So he may not have the athletic ability of Tiger or Adam Scott or the golf swing of them, but when it comes down to it, he hits the ball, he gets a bad break and kicks into the hazard, it’s not going to bother him too much.  Learned a lot from him in that regard to be honest.  That was — this weekend, nothing really got to me.  Very peaceful.

Last week I noted that Ai Miyazato works with the Vision 54 team of Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott and so does Streelman:

Pia and Lynn are amazing, our Vision 54 mental, life, game coaches, golf coaches, a little bit of everything. They are more life coaches than just mental coaches.  They are brilliant.  They have helped me immensely.  I’ve been with them probably ten years, just great people.  I have played a number of times with Ai.

Another person who is mentally extremely strong and just the rhythm on her golf swing, most instructors would look at her swing and say she’s got high right elbow, clubs across the line, blah, blah. But that rhythm and repetition that she believes in time and time and time again, she performs and that’s why she’s at top of the world.

And finally, after all those years on the mini-tours he had floated to the top of the heap and was ready for his first Q-School:

2007 was my last year on the mini‑tours.  I won four times.  At one time I was leading the Gateway and Hooters Tour Monday list and just felt really confident the way I was playing.  My course average was close to 66 or 66 ½ that summer, so I went to Q‑School sky‑high.

I remember going to San Juan Oaks for the first stage and didn’t make many putts the first round, second round; third round, [but] I’m right there.  End up birdieing four of my last five holes on the final day to make it on the number.  I look back at some of those 12‑, 15‑footers, if one of those lipped out or something, I don’t know what would have happened, because got to second stage and finals and got my Tour card through Q‑School.  But that first stage was pretty testy at the end of the round.

When he was playing the mini-tours, you drove from tournament to tournament. He went through three cars:

I burned out three cars.  I had two — I put 250,000 to 400,000 miles.  Started with my mom’s Altima, and then my own Altima and then I got a Camry.

Being on the PGA Tour is a glamorous accomplishment to be sure. But there’s a lot about getting there that’s not. Without complaint, Kevin Streelman does a pretty good job of encapsulating just how daunting that process can be. And for those who succeed, they are better players for having gone through it.

Thanks for sharing, Kevin Streelman, and congratulations. You earned it.

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