Steve Alker’s long ride to the top of the Tour Champions

Steve Alker’s long ride to the top of the Tour Champions

PHOENIX — Steve Alker has never known this life.

At 51, he’s a golf star, words which have never been written about him before, after decades of toiling in anonymity on golf’s fringes.

And now he’s sitting in front of a camera, a microphone hanging above his head, with Phoenix Country Club laid out beyond a window behind him, answering questions about coming out of the golf shadows and onto the precipice of a Charles Schwab Cup championship.

Three times Alker has earned and lost his PGA Tour card after just one year — the first time coming in 2003 as a 32-year-old. He’s played on the Korn Ferry Tour, in Europe, Asia and Australia — putting up hard yard after hard yard — hoping his game will eventually find its form.

It now has in the most unconventional of ways. He’s won four times this season in 22 starts, tying his win total in 304 Korn Ferry starts over 20 years on the minor-league tour.

Alker has endured a rollercoaster that lasted the past 19 years, searching for his golf game. He’s found it in the most unexpected of places: His 50s. When most players are starting to slow down, Alker has been speeding up, which has led to this weekend. He sits atop the Charles Schwab Cup points standings and the PGA Tour Champions money list, and will battle Padraig Harrington, the only golfer in the 33-man field who can topple Alker for the trophy this weekend.

Alker will be the overall winner as long as Harrington, who’s in second place, doesn’t win this weekend. Should Harrington finish first, then how Alker finishes will dictate who takes home the trophy.

“If someone plays amazing golf and kicks my butt and beats me for the Schwab Cup, I mean, s—, good on them,” Alker said. “I like to see guys play great golf …

“I’m gonna try my damndest just to win this thing and give ’em my best shot and try and play my best golf … If someone’s better, hey, good for them, man. That’s awesome. I’ll give it another shot next year”

The last 15 months have been an unexpected whirlwind.

Alker has finally found a consistency in his game that was absent during his golfing prime. He’s made all 22 cuts this season, has four wins, four second-place finishes, four third-place finishes and has finished out of the top 10 just five times.

“This consistent? No, probably not,” said Alker, who’s from New Zealand, assessing his current play. “… I think it just, maybe, surprised me a little bit, just the consistency because that’s one thing I’ve struggled with for a long time. And that’s one thing I’m most pleased with, just the consistency I’ve had for this period of time.

“It’s been fantastic.”

And he was one Monday qualifier from none of it ever happening.

After losing his PGA Tour card for the third time after the 2016-17 season, Alker returned to the Korn Ferry Tour. When the COVID-19 pandemic put the 2020 season on hold, he had missed the previous two cuts and his best finish of the young season was tied for 23rd. He didn’t play much better when the season resumed that June and Alker was convinced he would’ve lost his card in a normal year but the Korn Ferry Tour extended its 2020 season into 2021, and, with that, Alker kept his status. It didn’t matter, though. He continued to struggle.

But, by the time the season ended in the middle of August last year, Alker was playing the best he had in about two years. At the urging of his wife of 19 years, Tanya, he was going to try his hand at the PGA Tour Champions.

Three days after missing the cut in his final Korn Ferry Tour event, Alker entered the Monday qualifier for his first PGA Tour Champions event, the Boeing Classic. He made the field and tied for seventh. A week later he finished third at the Ally Challenge then tied for ninth at the Ascension Charity Classic.

It didn’t stop.

Alker played 10 tournaments in 13 weeks and finished outside the top nine just once. He ended up winning the TimberTech Championship before finishing second in the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.

“It was insane,” Alker said. “I played a full schedule on Korn Ferry and then went on this 10-tournament run at the end of the year, and I was exhausted by the end of the year.

“People have asked me, ‘What’s your secret sauce? What turned everything around? What’s the deal?’ And there’s not really … there’s no secret sauce. I can’t put my finger on one thing exactly. … It’s just a number of things that have come together and got my ducks in a row.”

He started the 2022 season at the same torrid pace. He finished second at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai at his season debut in late January. The successes haven’t stopped.

“It’s a number of emotions,” Alker said. “There’s a couple of weeks I haven’t played well but I’ve come right back and played well the next week. So, it’s exciting.

“All these emotions came together and made it a really fun year to be playing.”

Everything changed for Alker the moment he decided to leave the life of chasing cuts on the PGA and Korn Ferry tours.

His mindset. His focus. His goals. His approach. They were all new. All the pressures of professional golf, from trying to make enough money to provide for his family to reaching par, were lifted.

“I’m gonna be brutally honest here: It was kind of refreshing, almost to the point where it’s like, geez, maybe, I shouldn’t say the importance of playing those tours like the PGA Tour and the Korn Ferry went away, but it was just a whole change of direction, change of environment. That’s what I was looking forward to most.”

He had spent the previous two years trying to make the necessary tweaks to his game. Some of them were tangible like small equipment changes, work done to his swing and a new focus on his health.

About 18 months before joining the PGA Tour Champions, Alker realized his body wasn’t feeling great. He saw trainer Tyson Marostica who discovered that Alker couldn’t externally rotate his right shoulder or internally rotate his left hip. Marostica built Alker a workout plan to correct those two issues, along with strengthening Alker’s scapular stability. The result has been a “huge change,” Marostica said, especially in Alker’s stability and functionality.

“I see it mostly with consistency round-to-round,” Marostica said.

“He goes from one round, we don’t have the fatigue, we don’t see the changes in the swing, we don’t see the issues from fatigue later on in the rounds, and it’s pretty impressive when you see him. He’s just steady, he’s consistent.”

The most important tweaks Alker made, however, were intangible. Alker said goodbye to the long days on the range and the putting green. If he’s home in Fountain Hills, Arizona, with his wife and two kids for a week between tournaments, he gets in family time during the week, and then spends the weekend ramping back up.

“You learn from these experiences and I think that’s why I’m playing so well now that I’ve learned that I don’t have to spend hours and hours on the range,” Alker said. “I don’t have to practice every day.

“That’s just not gonna work for me now. I’m better getting some rest time and family time.”

As any golfer knows, the impulse to fix and tweak can be overwhelming. It can eat hours. It can paralyze a golfer’s game. It can be all consuming.

Now imagine doing that while getting paid to golf.

“Then you go down different paths to try and improve, make changes, make big changes, and sometimes they can hurt you,” Alker said.

“Week in, week out, I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t [compete]. And then, from there, kind of the grind started again once I lost my card, just trying to get back on the tour. It was just a lot of hard, hard grinding.”

In the middle of the decade-long absence from the PGA Tour, Alker reshaped his outlook on his career. His family was young. They were in school. He was a dad.

Golf wasn’t as important anymore. Life was unfolding in front of him and that led to changes both for him, his game and his family.

It was the first time he saw what it was like to play free of the burdens of the job.

When he started playing deep into the weekends on the Champions tour late last year, Alker couldn’t help but stargaze. There was Ernie Els. There was Freddie Couples. There’s Miguel Angel Jimenez. Then he was next to them on the range. He was playing next to them in the final pairing.

“You can see it means a lot to him,” David Toms said. “You know what he’s doing means a lot to his family.

“[He’s] somebody that’s really paid his dues along the way.”

Alker says he’s still the same guy as he was when he was lost in golf anonymity a few years ago. He hasn’t splurged on any big purchases despite the $4.48 million he’s earned on the PGA Tour Champions being more than five times what he took home in all his PGA Tour events and three times what he made on the Korn Ferry Tour.

It took Alker a while, longer than most in his position, to make it, but he’s here.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a second wind for me. It’s a second chance, maybe a third chance, maybe a fourth chance. I don’t know how many chances I’ve had right now. But it’s one that I’m kind of relishing it and just feel like the opportunity is there to do great things.”

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