THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Just previous a Dairy Queen close to Houston final month, Steven Alker’s new standing was aloft: His title and face had been on a lamppost banner.
Steven Alker, the skilled golfer who received virtually nothing till after his fiftieth birthday, was there with the likes of Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Darren Clarke and John Daly, who’ve mixed for eight main event victories. Alker has not even performed that many majors.
On Thursday, although, he’ll step right into a PGA Championship tee field as the person who surged from almost-never-in-first to toast of the PGA Tour Champions, because the senior circuit is thought. He just isn’t precisely the betting favourite, not in a subject largely headlined by males of their 20s and 30s. He is aware of he could not even make the minimize and end the event, the place a victory would make Alker, 51, the oldest main champion in historical past.
But Alker has been defying the clock that has typically been the etiology of agony for skilled athletes. For Alker, age and endurance are proving to be allies, as a result of solely lately has he unlocked the consistency that eluded him via a long time of missed cuts, demotions and paltry paychecks for professional sports activities.
In 304 begins on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit, which Alker first performed through the Clinton administration, he received 4 tournaments. He turned 50 on July 28, 2021, joined the senior tour and has since channeled a profession’s price of aggravations and data into six victories, together with one ultimately yr’s Senior PGA Championship.
“You can say, ‘Well, why did not he do that earlier?'” mentioned Hale Irwin, a three-time US Open winner.
“There are some issues that God retains secret, and that is certainly one of them,” mentioned Irwin, whose 45 senior tour victories are tied for essentially the most on report. “I simply know that during the last couple of years, he is perhaps been the pre-eminent participant out right here.”
In the senior tour’s most up-to-date full season, Alker made the minimize in all 23 occasions he performed. His 4 wins and 4 runner-up finishes helped him earn greater than $3.5 million in prize cash. He had made about $2.3 million throughout 390 begins throughout his years on the PGA Tour and its developmental circuit.
“I have never had two years of persistently good golf, I feel, ever,” Alker mentioned in a Woodlands Country Club weight room. “It’s a second probability, it is a second profession, and people do not come alongside fairly often.”
Perseverance, he mentioned, was most likely extra to thank than stubbornness. His standing as one of many younger gamers within the senior fields has helped, however his conscious method, joined with a refined quick recreation and distinctive wedge play, has additionally confirmed to be notably well-suited to a circuit that Irwin calls “a temperament tour.”
“I feel this tour is extra about precision, understanding the place your ball goes, scoring, simply getting the job finished,” mentioned Alker, whose thoughts has more and more cleared because of his monetary windfalls and growing older kids.
With his patchwork of strategies, he defended his Insperity Invitational title days later. This yr and final, he beat Steve Stricker, a previous American captain on the Ryder Cup, by 4 strokes.
It just isn’t unheard-of for the senior circuit within the United States to yield athletic reinvention or renewal. Much of Bernhard Langer’s pre-50 success performed out in Europe, however at 65, he’s one victory away from seizing Irwin’s report. And Gil Morgan claimed 25 senior tour titles regardless of by no means having received a significant.
But Langer completed atop the Masters Tournament leaderboard twice, and Morgan had eight top-10 finishes in majors, together with two third-place PGA Championship showings. Alker? He has by no means appeared in a Masters or, till now, a PGA Championship, though he as soon as managed a tie for nineteenth at a British Open.
His arrival on the senior tour had not precisely unnerved the circuit’s elite: “I had heard the title right here and there,” Langer mentioned, “but it surely wasn’t like an Ernie Els is approaching tour.”
Then he noticed Alker play.
“He ought to have been profitable tournaments left and proper and everywhere as a result of he appears to have all of it,” Langer mentioned. “He’s received a gorgeous golf swing — I truly get pleasure from watching his golf swing — and he hits the ball lengthy, straight. His quick recreation is fairly spot on, and clearly he is getting higher with age, like purple wine or one thing.”
As a boy in New Zealand, Alker reveled in soccer, tennis and cricket since he had not been sufficiently big, he lamented, to make a lot of a mark in rugby. But Alker’s father was a golfer, and the son took up the sport significantly across the time he was 10.
“I simply received hooked on the small issues, the self-discipline you wanted,” he mentioned. “It wasn’t only one factor you needed to be good at. You needed to be good at all the things.”
Around the center of his teenage years, he recalled, he started to wonder if he might make it as an expert. He was not constructed to be a ball-basher, however his quick recreation was exemplary, and he appeared to have larger psychological command over a spherical than his friends.
A whirlwind of excursions adopted: the PGA Tour’s assorted circuits, in addition to the European Tour, the place the wildly variable situations provided worthwhile expertise, the Asian Tour, the Canadian Tour and the pre-eminent tour in Australia. He discovered solely sporadic success and misplaced his PGA Tour card thrice, kicking him again into American golf’s model of baseball’s minor leagues. He insists he by no means considered quitting — some in his household puzzled whether or not he ought to — however as an alternative got here to anticipate his fiftieth birthday and a tour he was not sure he would qualify to play long-term.
He swiftly got here to embody how golf, as Langer put it, has “a fantastic line between good and dangerous, or between superb and simply good.”
The whirlwind that has include being superb has not ruffled Alker. He stays in snazzier lodges now, he mentioned. Sometimes, he confessed reluctantly, he’ll fly first-class. But he nonetheless lives within the house that his household purchased for lower than half of what Tiger Woods earned as a 19-year-old.
“I’ve handled it fairly properly,” Alker mentioned of the eye, “as a result of I have never had a whole lot of it.”
Oak Hill Country Club, the place the PGA Championship shall be performed, will pose a formidable check. He is coming into with minimal expectations: “maintain enjoying the way in which I’ve been enjoying and do the issues I’ve been doing properly and see how properly it holds up and see what occurs.”
Irwin, who has performed majors at Oak Hill, steered the course could possibly be favorable to Alker’s strengths.
“He has size to deal with most of these lengthy holes,” Irwin mentioned. “Can he get to the par-5s in two? Well, perhaps. But you must maintain the ball within the fairway at Oak Hill — you simply need to maintain the ball out of the timber and maintain it in play — and he does that extraordinarily properly.”
The minimize is predicted on Friday, with the event scheduled to conclude on Sunday. Next week, Alker will attempt for an additional Senior PGA Championship.
“I’m simply pleased to be right here and to nonetheless have this chance at 51, to nonetheless play for this amount of cash, to play on this setting with these guys,” Alker mentioned.
“That’s been one of many wonderful issues about being out right here,” he added, “simply to get to know the Hall of Famers and main champions that I by no means actually received to know.”
They know him now, in fact. If not, they will discover him on a lamppost.