Before Kevin Streelman had made it on the PGA Tour – and before his long road to get there – he was a member of the Duke golf team in 1998-2001, playing Pinehurst No. 2 in the dark.
Thanks to their coach, the Duke golf team had an in at No. 2 for the last tee time during the winter months, just after 2 p.m. Streelman, along with good friends and teammates Paul Tucker and Mike Christensen, would make the 90-minute drive down from Durham, teeing off in the afternoon and racing to finish the round before the light completely disappeared.
“Pretty darn dark,” Christensen said, remembering navigating the 18th. “Not that we were ever complaining about that.”
The guys would dream about a time when they would be back at No. 2 in the daylight and on display for a gallery of thousands. For Streelman, a new father currently ranked No. 56 in the world with career earnings just a few thousand dollars short of $10 million, that moment will come Thursday, in the 2014 U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2.
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“He had to stay really patient early on in those first few years out of school, because he did not play that well,” said Tucker, his freshman year roommate and best man. “It was just a matter of working hard and having all of that work pay off at some point.”
A fine line
Unlike the 10,127 golfers with a handicap of 1.4 or better who attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Streelman already had an exemption to play in the tournament.
“There are a lot of guys that are just a few rounds, a few good weeks of momentum away from setting their career,” said Allen Terrell, director of the Dustin Johnson Golf School and former Duke assistant coach during Streelman’s sophomore and junior years. “It’s a fine line, and no one knows what tops that balance between being someone no one has heard of and being a PGA Tour winner.”
As a professional, Streelman was on the wrong side of the line for 12 years – six were spent on mini tours around the country, and it took him 153 starts before he won his first PGA tournament, the 2013 Tampa Bay Championship. While Streelman, at times, appeared to be a long shot to make the PGA Tour (in 2004 a sponsor stopped returning his calls and he was stranded in San Diego with $400 in his bank account), he always had the raw talent.
“He has always been very, very athletic,” said Jim “Doc” Suttie, who started working with him when Streelman was a freshman in high school. “Great hand-eye coordination, always hit it a long way. So that was the beginning.”
Suttie, who worked with Streelman throughout high school and college, has vivid memories of taking his pupil to the driving range and watching him bomb golf balls more than 300 yards. Streelman would promise not to hit anyone on the opposite side of the range and then proceed to land balls to the left of the human targets.
He has always had that confidence in his abilities. He’s not arrogant, but he had the self-assurance a good-not-great college golfer with the third-best scoring average on a good-not-great team would need to pack up his car and head to the Dakotas Tour after graduation.
The car, his mother’s Nissan Altima, had a rod that spanned the backseat, supporting golf shirts and other clothes on hangers. It would later burn out after 200,000 miles, but not before it went across North and South Dakota, down home to Chicago, farther south to San Antonio, and out west to Arizona for the inaugural Gateway Tour in 2002.
“It was one of those things where I didn’t want to get a real job,” Streelman said. “I wanted to at least give it a shot and see how far I could make it.”
The closest Streelman came to calling it quits came in 2003, when the position of assistant golf coach opened at Duke. He applied and was one of two finalists. But he was on the wrong side of another fine line, and he wasn’t picked.
His dad, Dennis, told him it wasn’t meant to be and posed a question: would you want to be a guy that teaches, or do you want to be a player? The answer was, and had always been, the latter.
“So it was pretty easy to get back on the saddle and back on the road,” Dennis Streelman said.
Streelman had long taken inspiration from his father’s own derailed athletic career: Dennis was selected in the MLB draft, but, a few weeks later, received a draft number that guaranteed he would be going into the Army instead. The elder Streelman served stints in Germany and Vietnam before returning stateside.
“He just told me don’t ever give up on your dreams,” Streelman said. “When you’re 60 years old, and you look back, you just want to make sure you gave it your all.”
In addition to the pep talk and inspiration, Dennis gave his son $400 to play in the qualifier for the Western Open in Chicago. A long putt on the last hole earned him his first PGA start, with a locker next to Masters Champion Mike Weir. Streelman asked to play a practice round with him and received a first-hand education into the level of detail needed to succeed on the tour.
But Streelman had a more important chance encounter in Las Vegas at Tucker’s 2004 bachelor party.
Streelman went to grab brunch at the America restaurant in the New York-New York hotel and casino. It was crowded, so he sat at the counter. The person who wound up sitting next to him would turn out to be his wife.
“It was honestly about a 3-second window that we could have met,” Streelman said. “Her and her friends sat down, I looked over, got the bravery to say hello and talk to her, got her phone number, and that night we went out and have just talked every day since.”
Courtney, who was a swimmer at Arizona State, is what friends Tucker and Christensen point to as the difference for Streelman between a career on the mini tours and catching his big break.
“She would be up early and get her workout in,” Christensen said. “Once he met her, he always had the talent, and he was willing to work, but once he saw someone else in his life put that much time and effort into a sport, it really opened his eyes.”
Courtney and a renewed emphasis on his Christian faith brought more discipline to his life, which started to lead to better results on the golf course.
Four wins on the Gateway and Hooters mini tours in 2007 had him confident heading into Q school, where he had twice missed the final stage by one shot (including one incredibly cruel instance in which a torrential downpour in Houston wiped out a partial round that had him on track to make the final stage with three strokes to spare).
Streelman needed to birdie four out of the final five holes in the first stage to advance to the second, where he won. And then, he persevered through the six-day, 108-hole pressure cooker of a final stage to earn his card for the 2008 season.
“He really paid his dues,” Dennis Streelman said. “I’m very proud of him for that.”
Making the cut
Last month at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, 11-year-old Timmy Gannon spent two days trailing Streelman, one of his favorite golfers, at the Wells Fargo Championship. After Streelman holed out a 32-yard, chip-in eagle at No. 10, Gannon walked up to the rope and told him that was the second eagle he had seen from him that week.
“Gotta stick around, buddy,” Streelman said, slapping his hand.
Streelman has been a regular on tour for seven years now. His welcome-to-the-show moment came quickly, as he was paired with Tiger Woods on the Saturday of his third start of the year (a tournament he found out he was playing about four minutes before his tee time). Streelman shot 75 at San Diego’s Torrey Pines in front of Tiger’s huge, 2008-era gallery, getting a crash course in performing under the brightest of spotlights.
Even back then, he was comfortable enough to be high-fiving kids in the gallery and tossing them balls he had marked with small crosses.
Streelman’s biggest young fan, though, was in the clubhouse with her mother recently at the tournament in Charlotte. Five-month-old Sophie, his daughter. Sophie and Courtney travel with him weekly, with a playpen, stroller, bathing tub, high chair and bin full of books, toys and activity mats driven in a trailer to each stop. But Streelman’s driving days are done – now, his family can more than afford to fly.
Streelman made his first Master’s cut this year and will be looking for his major breakthrough on familiar grounds, at Pinehurst. His best finish in one of golf’s four major events came in last year’s PGA Championship, where he tied for 12th.
“For every Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods that comes out on the tour, there’s 50 or 70 Kevin Streelmans that don’t make it,” said Christensen, who caddied for Streelman his first few years on the PGA tour. “It’s really good to see where he has gotten to the point now where he’s comfortable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do well in a major here real soon.”
It’s hard to predict scores at golf’s notoriously toughest challenge. What is certain, though, is that when Streelman tees up on No. 18 for the first time, he won’t be in the dark, straining to find his ball.
He’ll be hitting into the light.