From Journeyman to Stardom - Steven Alker

On Monday the 16th of August 2021 Steve Alker stood on the first tee of The Club at Snowqualmie Ridge, Washington, in the Boeing Classic. He was trying to secure one of four places in a field of 55 to gain entry to his first Champions Tour event. It is difficult to imagine more pressure - he knew he had to shoot a low score. He also knew his game was in good shape ‘’but I didn’t really have any expectations’’. The last three decades had been a real struggle for him since turning professional in 1989. He had narrowly retained his Korn Ferry tour status in the previous two years to scrape out some sort of living. Turning 50 had possibly given Alker a career ‘’Mulligan’’.

He recalls ‘’I shot 68 on a tight course that was right up my alley’’. The first hurdle had been cleared. In the event proper, he shot 67 on the final day and tied for seventh. That top 10 finish ensured entry into the next event. He finished third. Slowly but surely, he built an impressive record and compiled four more top ten placings. By season end last year he had his full card on the Champions Tour. The current 2022 season is in full swing and has been spectacular for Alker. He has already compiled three Champions Tour wins and is now the Senior PGA Champion. He leads the money list with $1,813,961 after his first Major win. Golf may never have seen such a rags to riches story.

How does this happen to a player who had never finished in the top 10 in an event on the PGA Tour, and had missed 47 cuts out of his 86 events? The answer lies in a combination of factors. There have been different elements involved in his preparation for the over 50’s tour. Golf fitness is the term that Alker uses for one area of preparation. ‘’I started working with a trainer, a local guy in Arizona, 18 months out from the start of the tour’’. Alker had never enjoyed the physical fitness side to golf before, and he had avoided strength training. ‘’I had my body scanned to see what was going on with any weaknesses. We worked on stability and mobility work - this was fun’’. His strategy has clearly paid off - Alker averages  289 yards off the tee in Champions events so far. In his typically understated fashion, he acknowledges ‘’I may be a little longer than I was. I think I can become even longer if I work on my fitness’’.

In the latter part of the 2021 season, he found himself playing with the acknowledged stars of the PGA Tour, sprinkled with a mixture of past major winners. Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clark and many others.   Phil Mickleson popped up from time to time. Alker acknowledges ‘’I had certainly got their attention, purely through playing well. I do not have the pedigree that these guys have. But all the players were very welcoming to me. They offered to help me with anything I needed and were happy to play practice rounds with me.’’ He recently played with Vijay Singh and was then drawn with Ernie Els and Steve Stricker. He thought ‘’whoo - never played with these guys before. What should I be doing? In the end - I just concentrated on my own game. It was hard to focus but I thought I did it well’’. He has consistently beaten them all.

Alker does confess to having had some nervous moments when paired with these star players. ‘’These guys are very competitive, especially when it comes down the stretch. They still want to win and it’s all business around the back nine. They are Hall of Famers. I really like to watch them on the range and watch the short shots they hit’’.

Aside from developing his golf fitness Alker has also tapped into an accessible bank of knowledge on Senior Golf - his countryman - Sir Bob Charles. Alker decided to contact New Zealand golf’s senior statesman several months before going on the tour. He had met Sir Bob when he was attached to the Millbrook Resort near Arrowtown. Sir Bob had a home there, and the pair had played together several times. ‘’I decided to pick his brain - he didn’t have to help me - but you know what Bob is like. As a player Bob was very disciplined. His game, like mine, suited the Champions Tour.’’ Alker points to shorter courses with not much rough. The master counselled the pupil - ‘’be conservative with your longer game and aim for the middle of the greens. Attack the course from the 9 iron in’’. That helped Alker take a lot of bogeys off his card. He recalls ‘’I remembered when playing with Bob that he very rarely made a bogey. I have tried to play the same way.’’

After the initial contact with his mentor, Sir Bob sent Alker a copy of his biography which deals at some length with the challenges that a player faces in his 40s. Both players struggled to stay competitive in that twilight zone between ages 45 and 50. Alker appreciated the assistance, emailing ‘’Bob, I wanted to thank you for your advice and inspiration over the past few weeks through your emails and reading your biography’’. 30 years after the start of Sir Bob’s career in 1986 the pupil, Alker, has outshone the master on his tour debut. (Charles took a full year before winning his first event). The Charles career lasted for 10 years and includes two Senior majors, 23 victories and 29 runner-up placings. The self-effacing Alker comments wryly ‘’now I’m only 19 wins behind Bob!’’

Fitness and mentoring have clearly been a factor to date in this reborn golfer’s results. Equipment selection has also contributed to the success story. ‘’I needed to get the clubs and the ball right.’’ There is quite an eclectic mixture of brands in the Alker bag. He uses a Callaway driver, TaylorMade 3 and 5 woods, New Level irons, Titleist wedges and an Odyssey putter. He explains his equipment choices, ‘’my New Level irons are from a small company here in Scottsdale Arizona. I met the owner in late 2019 and started using his clubs in 2020. My TaylorMade contract ended in 2018 and then I started tinkering. This led me to where I am now. I like my Odyssey putter and I earn bonuses from them. I love my TaylorMade 3 and 5 woods, Callaway driver, and my Titleist wedges. There is nothing in my bag that I’m struggling with’’. A change of ball has also helped Alker with his switching to the Titleist ProV. ‘’I find it is not spinning as much, and I can launch it and hit it straight’’.

Another contributor to his success is Alker’s caddy Sam Workman. ‘’He has been with me since 2019. We had some tough times through the Korn Ferry tour. He has stuck with me the whole way. His demeanour is great, and he is certainly enjoying the Champions Tour. He has been a good player as well’’. The pay is not too bad either – the caddy’s loyalty has finally been rewarded and he will no doubt be enjoying his player’s success.

Life on tour is no doubt very different now for Steven Alker than his life was on the Korn Ferry Tour. Golf carts are permitted during the competition, but Alker elects not to take that option. ‘’Carts may be handy if you are on a three or four week stretch, it is a hilly course, or you are injured. I haven’t used a cart in an event personally, but I use them in the pro-ams to save a bit of energy. I like to walk and get into the flow in the actual tournament itself’’. There are two pro-ams before each event. Because Alker has finished in the top 20 in the last year he must only play in one pro-am per week. ‘’This gives me more time to practice and makes my week shorter’’ he comments. He clearly enjoys the stage on which he is displaying his skills. The golf courses suit him. ‘’The courses are all excellent, to be honest. They are up to 7200 or 7250 yards in length, but every now and then you may get a shorter course at 6700 or 6800. The greens might not be running at 13, and there is probably less run. They are a nice transition foe me from the Korn Ferry Tour’’.

The combination of preparation, strategy, equipment and fitness has culminated in his outstanding results. The statistics are illuminating. There seems to be no apparent weakness in the Alker game. He leads the Tour in - greens in regulation, birdie average and frequency of eagles. He is also in the top 20 in driving, putting average and driving accuracy. For many players, hitting greens in regulation does not always translate into the most birdies per round. His statistics show that he hits his iron shots close enough to convert into an outstanding birdie count of more than five birdies per round. ‘’For me success is a whole combination of things. I am a pretty good wedge player - but not as good as Steve Stricker. I am hitting it pretty close and giving myself a lot of birdie chances. I am hitting a lot of par fives in two and I have been scoring some pretty easy birdies out there’’.

Family life in Arizona seems stable and full for Steven Alker and his wife Tanya. The couple have not travelled together extensively in his first nine months on tour. However, that may change. ‘’I’m going to try and get Tanya out more, but the kids are still at high school. I will try to get her out with me more on weekends. We have a big six-week trip planned during the summer with the Senior Majors and then going to the UK.’’

The win in the recent Senior PGA Championship gives Alker the first start of his career in next year’s PGA Championship on the main tour. If he was able to emulate either of Sir Bob Charles’ two wins in the Senior Open championship, he would also gain entry into the Open Championship itself - at Royal Liverpool in 2023. ‘’The Senior Open is at Gleneagles on the Kings Course this year. It is certainly a good incentive to win’’. Alker finished 19th in the Open in 2012.

There is also the prospect of an appearance by Alker at the 2023 New Zealand Open at Millbrook. He has had discussions with John Hart and Michael Glading about playing in the event. ‘’It might be my last hurrah. I’ll be 51. I love that part of the world and grew up down there at Millbrook. That is also where I started playing with Bob a bit and started picking his brain!’’  Alker is keen to support his own country’s Open, particularly after this year’s cancellation.

The financial rewards that have followed Alker’s fine play have seemed to have changed this low-key golfer very little. There has been no rush post major win to go and buy a luxury motor vehicle. Alker gives an overriding impression of modesty, coupled with a quiet sense of satisfaction in his recent success. ‘’ I just feel more secure’’ he comments. ‘’I have not changed my lifestyle. I am still travelling coach class (economy). It has all been so quick and such a whirlwind. Nothing much has changed, but I have now been able to plan the schedule ahead’’.

Steven Alker has shocked the golf world with the speed and level of his success. He gives an undeniable impression of strength of character beneath that understated Kiwi exterior. The planning of his Senior career has been thoroughly and carefully compiled at various levels. He sums it all up neatly in the closing of an interview given by him from his local airport near Fountain Hills. ‘’My game is as good as it has ever been. I am playing with a lot of freedom - which is the key to my game. I am enjoying myself and the results that have come along with that.’’

The Champions Tour has given this likeable, determined golfer a well-deserved second chance in the game after a tough 30-year grind with very little reward. Has any golfer deserved success more than Steven Alker?