THE LAD FROM HAMILTON
Steven Alker would be what many describe as the definition of a "journeyman tour professional", having won from Fiji to Prince Edward Island in Canada, to qualifying for the British Open. However, he still has great memories of playing golf with the boys
We talk to Steve Alker who has been on tour for over 20 years and is still loving it.
When I caught up with Steve, he had just arrived in Wichita, Kansas and was getting ready to tee it up at the Wichita Open. Only five weeks away from his 47th birthday, he is one of the older players in the field but he still relishes competing against the young guns that bomb it down the fairways and are fearless around the greens. Steve will play methodically down the middle and not make too many mistakes. He has a strong and steady game that has taken him around the world since turning Pro in 1995 and winning very early on at the Fiji Open.
Steve recalls having fond memories of his first win at the 1995 Fiji Open. Not all were fond memories, some are better described as unforgettable, as he had a very dodgy stomach before teeing off. He almost didn't play, but after multiple visits to the toilet on the front nine he received some local assistance. "A local guy saw the distress I was in and gave me some plant to chew on while I played the back nine. It bloody worked and I was able to go on and beat Grant Moorhead in a playoff!" Steve recalls.
Learning to play the game at St Andrew's Golf Club in Hamilton in the mid-80's, Steve quickly made the junior teams where he became good mates and strong competitors with Phil Tataurangi, David Smail and Michael Long. He quickly rattles off many other great players that he competed with and against at tournaments all around the North Island. "When you looked up to golfers like Colin Taylor, John Gatley and Alan Smith, we got a great education on and off the golf course. There are many great stories from those days but none I want to share in print!"
It was during this period that Steve hooked up with coach John Griffin, who was living in Hamilton at the time and has been his golf coach ever since. "John really gave me a golf swing that is very efficient and has ensured I have stayed competitive. It really is based around the basics. My old mate from the Waikato, and one time fellow touring Pro on the Canadian Tour, Paul Parlane, who now lives in Los Angeles, also helps me with my game. Since he worked for John for many years the three of us are very much in-sync. As John is rarely in the US, it is great to have Paul relatively nearby and occasionally on the road with me to ensure I am on-track. Paul really knows the data of the golf swing, so where John is very much visual and focuses on the basics, Paul is more about the numbers and he can quickly identify where I am getting off-track. This has been a great formula for the last 12 years. It was great to be home earlier this year for the NZ Open and have John tell me it was the best he had seen me swing the club in many years".
Steve was fortunate to wear the New Zealand blazer at the 1990 and 1994 Eisenhower Tournaments. Playing in the 1990 event in Christchurch was magic especially as he finished tied second with a very strong American team that featured David Duval and Phil Mickelson. The team from Sweden won and played some outstanding golf. It really was a golden era of NZ amateur golf with Stephen Scahill, Michael Campbell, Moorhead and Phil Tataurangi being great competitors and winning the 1992 Eisenhower Tournament.
Steve and his English wife Tanya met when she and a friend were traveling through NZ. Through a mutual friend they were told to look-up John Griffin. "I was in Queenstown working on my game with John getting ready to go to Canada; the rest, as they say, is history. Tanya came and caddied for me in Canada. That was the true test of our relationship!! She survived that and then she continued to caddy for me on the Australasian tour and a few Web. com events. She also caddied for me in two US Opens and a British Open. So the standing joke at home is that I need to qualify for a major for her to pick up the bag and caddy for me again!" →
A local guy saw the distress I was in and gave me some plant to chew on while I played the back nine. It bloody worked and I was able to go on and beat Grant Moorhead in a playoff!" Steve recalls.
Steve and Tanya have lived in Scottsdale, Arizona off and on since 2003 while he has played on various tours. But in 2010, they settled there as they had two children to enrol in schools. "Our son Ben is about to turn 14 and our daughter Skye will be 12 in July. They are not particularly sporty but performing youth theatre is their thing right now. They have good voices which they certainly didn't get from my side of the family"!
"Scottsdale is a great golf area and I have great facilities in which to play and practice at the TPC Scottsdale; in the summer when it hits over 110F. for about 3-months, it is nice to leave and head out on tour or have a family holiday". For the rest of the time, especially over winter, Steve enjoys practicing and playing with many of the other PGA Tour players that also call Scottsdale home.
"Currently I am travelling between 22 and 32 weeks a year and this has been my life for the last 20 years. Being away from home is tough but over the summer school holiday break, my family joins me for a few weeks. The Web.com tour is quite different from the PGA Tour and it's not just the amount of money we are playing for! We play in smaller cities and some beautiful areas. The event in Utah is in a resort area, very similar to Queenstown, so I feel really comfortable there. The courses are obviously not as well manicured and generally have less rough and are a little more open than on the main tour. I prefer the more traditional tree lined courses and we have a few of these coming up; I am looking forward to playing over the next couple of months and hopefully, to regain my card for the PGA Tour".
Steve has been fortunate to have had no serious injuries to date. "After having knee surgery in 1999, I have really made an effort to stay 'golf fit' which I believe has helped prevent me from further injury. I have a daily 40-minute routine that involves a lot of stretching and golf-related Pilates exercises that keep me relatively flexible, ensuring that I have very good mobility. I've never been a runner, so I generally hop on the exercise cycle for my cardio workouts. But the older I get, the more I have focused on my workouts and I guess my swing reflects this. I now feel stronger in my body and I feel that my golf swing is more efficient. My ball striking is much improved and I'm hitting the baller further today than at any other time of my career: I am now averaging 290-yards off the tee. Yes, the ball and club are dramatically different from those that I played in amateur golf but I do believe this taught me the skills of being a shot-maker and to trust my short game".
Steve is also very excited about the opportunity to play on the Senior Tour. "Seeing my old Canadian and Australian Tour mate, David McKenzie cash some really nice cheques when he turned 50, has given me that extra motivation". But in the meantime, just surviving and keeping his card on the Web. com tour is the main goal but he would like to get back onto the PGA Tour next year. "The players are re-ranked on the Web.com tour every four weeks, so ensuring you have a good ranking is important to help you keep your status. There are some tournaments I would like to really like to qualify for, like one of the play-off events in Boise, Idaho, where I lost a play-off in 2014".
"It was great to win the Canadian Tour Order of Merit in 2000, having Tanya caddying for me made that pretty special, and having won three times on the Web.com tour is something I am really proud of. The 2002 Louisiana Open, 2013 Utah Championship with a career best 61 in the 3rd round and the 2014 Cleveland Open. All three of these wins came by “play-off” and I actually hold the Web.com record for the tour's longest ever play-off when I defeated Dawie van der Walt on the 11th hole! I ended up finishing 20th in the Web.com rankings that year, to earn my card back on to the main tour".
Playing in the majors is something that Steve has always enjoyed but really hasn't done as often as he would have liked. "I qualified for the British Open in 1998, 2007, and 2016 but missed the cut. In 2012, I had a great time playing the difficult Royal Lytham St Anne's course and finished tied for 19th place". This was same Open where Ernie Els defeated Adam Scott. He has qualified for both the 2013 and 2014 US Opens for ties in 45th place and unfortunately missed the cuts.
For a young lad from Hamilton who worked as a petroleum engineer "Okay, I was working at a petrol station and as a carpet cleaner, I am pretty happy with my career in golf. Yes, I would very much like to win the NZ Open and have a victory on the PGA Tour, but I am really proud to have won the 2009 NZPGA Championship at Clearwater when it was part of the Web.com tour. To defeat my old St Andrews Golf Club mate, David Smail, as well as Josh Geary, was a very special day for me. But right now, it is all about the next golf course, the next tournament, the next city and making the next cheque, so that I can continue my dream". I now have less than 750 days until I join the PGA Senior Tour, so bring it on!
Steven Alker plays his shot during the Barbasol Championship at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Grand National on July 22, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama.
↑Steven Alker with the 2009 NZPGA Championship trophy at Clearwater Golf Club.