New Zealander Steven Alker began a freshly christened year on PGA TOUR Champions exactly the way he ended the last one, which was plenty fine with him. Saturday amid the postcard setting of crashing waves off the distance in scenic Ka’upulehu-Kona, Alker stood on the 18th green at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai holding yet another trophy, his reward for yet another resounding victory.
His last official start resulted in victory at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Phoenix in November, so this made two wins in a row for Alker, whose once-pedestrian golf life started anew at 50.
The 52-year-old has seen the other side of professional golf, knowing what it’s like to barely survive. He missed 21 cuts in 21 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour a little more than a decade ago (2010) and never made an impact on the PGA TOUR, failing to record a single top-10 finish. But he kept in shape and kept working on his craft, hoping his day would come.
During Saturday’s telecast, Golf Channel analyst Lanny Wadkins wondered aloud from the tower what a lot of people have wondered about Alker, now an eight-time winner in 54 PGA TOUR Champions starts: “Where the hell have you been all this time?” Wadkins asked incredulously as he watched Alker shoot 65-63-63.
Alker’s winning total of 25-under 191 matched the tournament scoring record set by Loren Roberts in 2006.
In Saturday’s final round, Alker did not miss a single green in regulation. His ball-striking was clinical, and he won with a brand-new set of irons in the bag (made by Next Level, a company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Alker resides). Making seven birdies and an eagle, Alker won by four over Frazar (65) and five over Stricker, the defending champion and 2023 Player of the Year. Stricker closed with 66.
A round of pineapples for all, as Alker has a certain fondness for the island. His triumph at Hualalai arrived on the heels of runner-up finishes in his two previous visits.
After his 50th birthday in July 2021, Alker played his way onto the Champions Tour first through Monday qualifying, and then through seven top-10 autumn finishes that led to him winning the TimberTech Championship. He was asked after winning the Mitsubishi exactly when he became so comfortable playing against a roster of major winners and Hall of Famers on PGA TOUR Champions.
“I’m trying NOT to get comfortable, to be honest,” Alker said, smiling. “Especially with the company we’re keeping (alluding to Stricker and the long-hitting Frazar, with whom he played in Saturday’s final grouping).
“I try not to get comfortable. To answer your question though … When you get that second win, it’s ‘OK, I can do this,’ and try to keep going from there.”
Alker began the final round leading Stricker and Frazar by two. Alker, the 2022 Player of the Year, just kept charging in the final round, leaving no openings. He did come close one time, but he recovered and would not be caught afterward.
Alker made the most of a massive break on the 556-yard, par-5 seventh hole, where he pushed a second shot from 218 yards with “a scrappy 4-iron” that caromed twice off a cart path, then bounded toward jagged lava rocks right of the green. Bernhard Langer once made a 10 on the hole, so it can happen.
But it was almost as if the lava rocks spit out Alker’s ball, and it bounded across the green before stopping just short of the left fringe, some 40 feet from the flagstick. The fortuitous break was magnified when Alker stepped up and ran in the monstrous putt for eagle. Stricker and Frazar had played the friendly par 5 far more by design, made their birdies, and left the green having lost a shot. Alker then tacked on a solid birdie at the par-3 eighth, and by the turn was at 21 under, three better than Frazar and four ahead of Stricker.
“Obviously I got a little bit lucky,” said Alker, who was blocked from seeing the bouncing ball after he struck it. “Someone said it came off the lava rocks, or something happened up there. I didn’t see it. I hit a scrappy 4-iron and it ended up nice, and I made the putt.
“That was a big swing there. And I hit a beautiful shot into 8 (a 204-yard par 3, where Alker hit it to 6 feet) and made that one. I felt good after that. I hit some good tee shots from then on, and got into more of a groove.”
Did he ever. Stricker knew he had a tall task ahead of him trying to chase down Alker, who these days is swinging the club beautifully and making very few unforced errors.
“I would have needed something pretty special to catch Steve today, he played great,” Stricker said. “He played great, and the one shot that he missed, hit off a cart path, hit in the rocks and to make an eagle, that’s a three-shot swing right there. Then he just capitalized on it, right? … You get a bounce like that, and capitalize like that, it’s kind of your day.”
Stricker, 56, won at Hualalai a year ago in a romp, leaving Alker and three others six shots behind him. The victory kicked off an incredible season for Stricker. He won six events – three of them major championships – and was a runner-up five other times. He set PGA TOUR Champions marks for earnings ($3,986,063, despite not appearing in the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs) and scoring average (67.54).
Once Alker stuffed a tee shot to 5 feet at the par-3 17th – and he wasn’t done, running in a 17-foot birdie at 18 to tie the tournament’s scoring mark – the only drama remaining was seeing who would finish second. Frazar stepped up big on the 410-yard closing hole, hitting a towering approach from 162 yards to 3 feet, his birdie edging Stricker for second place. The finish marked Stricker’s 44th top-five finish on the Champions Tour.
Twice a runner-up at Mitsubishi, Alker this time earned a trophy and a $340,000 winner’s check. Better yet, he was sending an early-season warning: The man who was the Champions Tour’s top player in 2022 has won two straight, and he is fired up to once again be the man to beat among the 50-and-over club.
Yes, don’t allow Alker’s words to fool you. He can claim that he is not feeling all that comfortable, just the way a poker star quietly checks with pocket kings – but Alker’s current form carries an entirely different statement. It says: Watch out. Big days ahead. Again.
Article Courtesy of: PGA Tour Champions