The Big Interview: Steven Alker – The Most Unlikely Redemption Story of New Zealand Sports
Steven Alker of New Zealand celebrates his victory in the finals of the PGA TOUR Champions Timber Tech Championship on the Old Course in Broken Sound. Photo / Getty Images.
Kiwi golfer Steven Alker is one of New Zealand’s most unlikely stories of salvation.
It took almost 20 years for him to become an overnight sensation in America, where he won a tournament in Florida
confirmed him as the rising star of the senior tour (over 50).
A career that has been relatively forgotten has made notable headlines and paydays since sneaking in on the Champions Tour a few months ago.
Alker and wife Tanya moved to the US almost 20 years ago to pursue their dream of making the glamorous PGA tour.
Alker enjoyed three PGA seasons but spent most of his time fighting on the second Korn Ferry Tour, which mixed four wins with lots of missed cuts and tough times.
It has often been a financial struggle for the Alkers, who have two teenage children.
Hey presto, when he turned 50 at the end of July his clubs turned into wands. After qualifying for a PGA Tour Champions event, Alker was suddenly a new man.
Headlines like “Cinderella Story” and “Life Begins at 50” accompanied a number of top placements as Alker rubbed his shoulders and shared the limelight with legends like Bernhard Langer and Phil Mickelson.
Alker, who barely cracked $ 100,000 on the Korn Ferry Tour last season, has already raised over $ 1.2 million from nine Champions Tour events.
His TimberTech tournament win over the weekend earned him the best payday of his career of $ 430,000. More importantly, it guaranteed him full status on the Champions Tour next year.
The money may matter, but it is the pursuit of golf victories that still drives the affable Hamilton golfer.
Alker, who lives in the small town of Fountain Hills, near Phoenix, speaks to the NZ Herald.
Steve Alker from New Zealand poses with the trophy after winning the PGA TOUR Champions Timber Tech Championship on the Old Course in Broken Sound. Photo / Getty Images.
You’re the phoenix of golf from Phoenix … it just has to feel great to make some headlines?
Yes, I felt that a little. People came and said, “Well done”. Players notice it. It was fun out there, with a more relaxed atmosphere. I am a bigger fish in a smaller pond compared to my home.
How tough has it got over the years?
Financially pretty tough. The Korn Ferry is pretty tough … unless you have a top 25 season, you aren’t really making money. Often we just got through and tormented each other.
There were times when I thought I might need to get a real job. But I’ve always been a passionate and committed golfer, so there wasn’t a time to dare. The funny thing is that you change focus, get your mindset right, and things can change pretty quickly in this game. The same goes for any other sport and everything in life I think.
Did you have the Champions Tour in your sights?
It took a year to develop – my wife and I started talking about it shortly before the onset of Covid. It motivated me and kept my game in shape. I wasn’t a free runner for the Champions Tour, but I was confident that my game would be up to it.
Summarize your career before these amazing months.
I definitely, probably, underestimated. I won tournaments but I didn’t have a career on the PGA Tour, which is why I came here to play. Disappointing.
I won the Korn Ferry Tour and kept that status, played in Europe, almost won there a couple of times.
But I would have liked to have played at a higher level for longer. It feels like another chapter, another chance to redeem myself or have a good career for another ten years.
A recent headline about you that life begins at 50 …
Padraig Harrington recently spoke about what makes certain guys tick in different environments. I now play with guys my age and hit the same distance as me. I’m more comfortable, and that changes things a little.
What is it like to be on leaderboards and in fields full of names like Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen … even Phil Mickelson?
Being with this company is fantastic, people I saw a lot on TV years ago. And I’ve already learned a lot just to play with them. Obviously most of them don’t get as far as they used to … just watch the way they play the game, their mannerisms. I don’t want to be out there as an observer, but I’ve got a lot of help from them, even from older guys like Tom Lehman. I’ve played a couple of times with Larry Mize, a Masters winner, and had a training round with Bernhard Langer. Everyone is very cordial.
And what did they tell you?
I love the pace of Larry Mize … I asked him if he used a punch or a punch when putting. He said a combination that he likes to feel a bit like a hit, which goes against what people say you should do. That was really cool because I was working on it.
Bernhard Langer told me that over the years he had learned not to practice so much, to manage time better. There’s a little pattern with these guys – they work more on their bodies than on the range.
I’ve been looking for (kiwi golf legend) Bob Charles’ brain for three or four months and he has given me great insight into preparing for the Champions Tour.
His bio is also an amazing read. Bob was conservative in his long game to medium irons and quite aggressive with his short irons. If it’s a four or five iron, take the center of the green. Sometimes I’m a little too aggressive. I would definitely credit him for what happened to me.
You weren’t a long hitter – did that work against you when the game was power-up?
A little, I think, but it’s a whole combination. If you have a well-rounded game, you can play anywhere. With the equipment and the training, I am striking as far as never before and am long enough for the Champions Tour. The big difference is that the rough isn’t that long, but I always hit lots of fairways and greens anyway.
Do you have a normal caddy?
I had a guy named Sam Workman from South Texas on the Korn Ferry Tour for three years. He went through some tough times with me and was a soldier. He mastered the tough yards and certainly deserved the prize money we win. We both said let’s prepare for the champions, let’s try. This includes his insights and experiences. It’s quite an effort from Team Alker.
Steven Alker from New Zealand and his caddy Sam Workman during the finals of the PGA TOUR Champions Timber Tech Championship. Photo / Getty Images.
Did you have a golf hero?
I loved the way Seve Ballesteros played. I’ve watched him on tour – he was passionate, had a great short game, sometimes broke. Nobody had Seve’s game or imagination, but I learned a lot from him. When playing golf, you have to have imagination, no matter what type of player you are.
Any advice for aspiring golf professionals?
Be yourself – golf is such an individual sport.
Nothing beats hard work and sheer dedication. You have to decide: go or no.
Then get strong and hit hard. Work on the short game, of course, but golf coaches are starting to teach children ages five and up to hit the ball as far as possible. Work on the tech and grab it later.
And I would say do the little things well – including things like asking the greenkeeper or the pro shop for space.
I had a training session with Bernhard Langer at Pebble Beach on a course that he hadn’t seen in 20 years. He could have ridden around on a cart, but he had a full five and a half hour exercise lap on the caddy and treadmill. However, I believe that no one can be as meticulous as Bernard at the age of 64.
Is there anything you would change in golf?
I would hate to be the boss of the PGA, USGA, or RNA with the equipment debacle. The ball is the biggest – it goes straight, longer, is difficult to shape, it goes better through the wind.
I’ve spoken to older players like Hale Irwin and Tom Lehman about it. Why don’t you turn the ball back a little, five or seven percent. But does that hurt the shorter players because the courses may stay the same length?
Usually … Jack Nicklaus has been talking about getting out of fairway divots for years.
It took me a shot in North Carolina this year – a beautiful ride, 295 yards in the middle, and I land in a foot-long ditch filled with sand. There is nothing worse and it can be soul-devastating for amateurs.
How has the pandemic affected golf and what about the sport?
The numbers in the states have increased … it’s something people could do during the pandemic. I would like more public golf courses, better public access, and more par-3 courses where people can pay $ 10 or $ 15 a round.
Steven Alker from New Zealand hits a shot on the 10th tea box in the second round of the PGA TOUR Champions Dominion Energy Charity Classic. Photo / Getty Images.
What do you miss about life in New Zealand?
Meet people and have some food … good old meat pies. I will eat as much as I can when I get back. I’m pretty much into steak and mushrooms, and ground beef and cheese are hard to beat. You can’t get them here – they’re all chicken pot pies and they’re not the same. You have to look out for French places to get decent pastries.
I keep track of all of the Kiwi golfers – Lydia (Ko), Foxy (Ryan Fox) etc – keeping an eye out for the New Zealand courses and the younger players like Daniel Hillier. I like to go back to get a feel for their games.
Tanya is English and she misses English culture, history and me too. But we’ve always said home is where we are.
Are there any other kiwis on the senior tour?
I know Michael Campbell is playing some senior events in Europe and I think he’s fine. I haven’t spoken to him in a while. I think he tried here last year. It would be great to have another kiwi out there.
Your professional goals?
I wanted to reevaluate her by the end of the year – I didn’t expect to be in that position.
By and large – keep playing, stay healthy and win the Champions Tour.
I have always enjoyed playing in the UK and I have a great passion for links golf.
I’ve played in a few British Open and it would be pretty cool to win a British senior tournament, especially since Tanya is English.
This is a new chapter, a chance to make a few dollars, which is great, but that’s not ultimately the point.
I want to make some new friends and take a few wins in a new environment.