Early in the final round of the Tampa Bay Championship, there was at one point a six-way tie at the top. Best guess was one of those guys would emerge with the trophy. And that’s not counting defending champion and the highest ranked player in the field, world no. 3, Luke Donald, who was lurking just behind the pack, which included Boo Weekley, Justin Leonard, Greg Chalmers, George Coetzee and Kevin Streelman.
As it happened, Streelman — whose previous most notable title heading into the week was something called the Kodak Challenge — emerged from the bunch and separated himself when he hit “probably the best shot of my life in that situation,” knocking a five-iron to six feet on No. 13. He rolled in the putt for birdie and never looked back and clinched it on the penultimate hole.
“When I made the putt on 17, that freed my mind up a little bit. I knew I needed bogey to win, and I told AJ (Montecinos), my caddie, I should play it differently on 18,” said Streelman in his post-win press conference.
“He said: ‘Grip that driver down the middle.’ To flush that, knock the wedge on the uphill putt and tap‑in for par, was pretty magical.”
The 34-year-old Illinois native and Arizona resident has worked hard to get to the winner’s circle. His journey started on the mini tours after he graduated from Duke, where he played his college golf, in 2001. Over the next several years, he burned out three cars driving 400,000 miles around the country in hopes of reaching his dream and making it on the PGA Tour.
“I think (this is my) 153rd event on the PGA Tour, many, many events before that on the Hooters Tour and Gateway Tour and Dakotas Tour,” said Streelman after shooting a four-under 67 at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course to clinch his maiden victory in the bigs. “Always had a dream of getting here.
“And so to get this is the cumulation of a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent late into the evening and getting up early in the morning, and it’s really a dream come true.”
Streelman won four times on the mini tours in 2007 before he earned his PGA Tour card that year via the now-defunct Qualifying Tournament (Q-School). He became the 14th consecutive American winner on the Tour — a streak that dates back to 37-year-old Tommy Gainey, a(nother) Cinderella story, at the McGladrey Classic last fall.
“I guess level of comfort, level of confidence, level of saying it’s just kind of time, a level of saying I’ve put in the work,” said Streelman when asked what led to the win. “And seeing my buddy, Mike Thompson win, was awesome.
“Seeing all the Americans doing well is pretty cool. I kept is one shot at a time pretty well today. I think that’s what I can go back on. I was really at peace with whatever the result may be, doesn’t really matter. Had bigger things in mind, long‑term visions of our career and weren’t going to let one week, great or bad, dictate that. So I’ve got long‑term plans and we’re sticking to that process and hopefully these are just going to be the results now.”
Prior to Sunday, Streelman’s best finishes on the PGA Tour were T3 at the 2009 Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera Maya-Cancun, the 2010 Puerto Rico Open & the 2010 The Barclays. His last win was during his rookie year in 2008 when he took down Billy Mayfair at the Whisper Rock club championship.
Which segues to a cool note: A decade ago, Streelman cleaned clubs at Kierland Golf Course on the weekdays and caddied at Whisper Rock on the weekends to make ends meet and grind it through the mini tours. Five years ago, he got a phone call inviting him to become a member at the Scottsdale, Arizona, golf club, where many pros call their home course.
“I went from caddie to club champion at Whisper Rock, which is a pretty cool story,” he said.
With the victory, he punches a coveted trip to the Masters. It will be his second start in the season’s first major. He earned a somewhat controversial (if that) spot in 2011 after he qualified for the 2010 Tour Championship, finishing in the top 30 in FedExCup points.
“It’s going to be amazing,” said Streelman, referring to next month’s Masters. “That has not really sunk in yet but to get another home there to rent for the week and to make that drive, a lot of people ‑‑ I got in because of the FedEx number the last time I was there and some people thought I shouldn’t have been there. So to get in there and do it on my own this time is really meaningful.”
Another random note: his caddie AJ Montecinos was on Y.E. Yang’s bag when Yang took down Tiger at the ’09 PGA Championship. Montecinos started at the end of last year when Streelman’s former caddie Mikey Christensen, a former teammate at Duke and very good player himself (won the caddie tourney last year that’s held on Monday after Tampa, so I guess today), got a “real” job.
Boo Weekley, who teed off three hours before the leaders, posted the round of the week, an impressive nine-under 63, which was good enough to ruin his fishing plans on Sunday afternoon. Weekley had two stretches with three consecutive birdies, Nos. 9-11 and Nos. 14-16. In the second stint, his longest birdie putt was two feet.
He shot a total of eight-under, and then ate some pizza and watched some golf, while he waited for the leaders to get done. He came up short, but I think he’ll take the solo second, his best finish since winning the 2008 Verizon Heritage.
“Even I’m still kind of shocked at how good I really hit it,” said Boo, who was the leader in the clubhouse, after his round. “The greens that I missed, the two greens that I missed I thought were going to be perfect. You know, one was a little long, one was a little short but overall one of the best days I’ve had in ball‑striking in a long time.”
In a text this evening, Hamilton said: “The putting work kept him in the mix until he had the hot round today. This was his third tournament in a row with positive on strokes gained putting. If he doesn’t lose strokes on the green, he will be hard to handle, but ballstriking early in the week was awesome.
“We’re still working on flow of stroke with no hit and the putt for par he made on 18 was awesome for him. He made a 4-5-footer for par, which doesn’t seem like much, but it was downhill and fast and let him finish solo second. So it was a very important clutch putt.”
Another big story coming out of Tampa on Sunday: 19-year-old Jordan Spieth placed T7 and earned $148,893, which gave him $521,893 in four starts this season.
He needed to win more than No. 150 on the 2012 money list ($474,295) to clinch Special Temporary Membership for the rest of 2013, making him eligible for unlimited sponsor’s exemptions as he tries to secure his 2013-2014 PGA Tour card (which I’m going to guess is essentially a lock — has to win or make more money than no. 125 on the money list from last season).
Spieth chipped in for birdie from 50 feet on the par-3 no. 17 and then rolled in a clutch seven-footer for par on no. 18 to make enough money. He made back-to-back bogeys on nos. 12-13 when he looked at a leaderboard on no. 14 to check where he was because he had an idea of what he needed to do to earn Special Temporary Membership.
“I saw that I was out of it,” said Spieth. “Probably would have been out by just a few thousand dollars, and needed a birdie coming in. What a great feeling to have it come on 17 in front of that crowd with a flop shot out of the rough.
“So I’m very happy. Hit a great tee shot, great wedge into 18. Had the wind shift on me. I couldn’t believe that it went short. But got the job done with the putt.”
Before the timely chip-in, Spieth would have been $195 short of what he needed.
Needless to say, he was excited.
“When you go, at the beginning of the year, when you know that you only get seven unrestricted exemptions; first of all it’s hard to get seven tournaments in, let alone make enough money to get your card in; to be able to do it and really three events,” said Spieth. “I missed the cut at Torrey, played well at Pebble, last week and here, so I never would have guessed that I would get it this quickly.
“You know, I feel great. I feel in control and I know what it’s like to be in contention in a Tour event and I was more comfortable this week. I just want to get back and get a win now.”
He’ll have a shot in less than two weeks at the Shell Houston Open — which he qualified for by finishing in the top ten.
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)