Steven Alker Set To Make PGA Championship Debut

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Just past a Dairy Queen near Houston last month, Steven Alker’s new status was aloft: His name and face were on a lamppost banner.

Steven Alker, the professional golfer who won almost nothing until after his 50th birthday, was there with the likes of Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Darren Clarke and John Daly, who have combined for eight major tournament victories. Alker has not even played that many majors.

On Thursday, though, he will step into a P.G.A. Championship tee box as the man who surged from nearly-never-in-first to toast of the PGA Tour Champions, as the senior circuit is known. He is not exactly the betting favorite, not in a field largely headlined by men in their 20s and 30s. He knows he may not even make the cut and finish the tournament, where a victory would make Alker, 51, the oldest major champion in history.

But Alker has been defying the clock that has often been the etiology of agony for professional athletes. For Alker, age and patience are proving to be allies, because only in recent years has he unlocked the consistency that eluded him through decades of missed cuts, demotions and paltry paychecks for pro sports.

In 304 starts on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit, which Alker first played during the Clinton administration, he won four tournaments. He turned 50 on July 28, 2021, joined the senior tour and has since channeled a career’s worth of aggravations and knowledge into six victories, including one at last year’s Senior P.G.A. Championship.

“You can say, ‘Well, why didn’t he do this earlier?’” said Hale Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open winner.

“There are some things that God keeps secret, and this is one of them,” said Irwin, whose 45 senior tour victories are tied for the most on record. “I just know that over the last couple of years, he’s maybe been the pre-eminent player out here.”

In the senior tour’s most recent full season, Alker made the cut in all 23 events he played. His four wins and four runner-up finishes helped him to earn more than $3.5 million in prize money. He had made about $2.3 million across 390 starts during his years on the PGA Tour and its developmental circuit.

“I haven’t had two years of consistently good golf, I think, ever,” Alker said in a Woodlands Country Club weight room. “It’s a second chance, it’s a second career, and those don’t come along very often.”

Perseverance, he said, was probably more to thank than stubbornness. His status as one of the more youthful players in the senior fields has helped, but his mindful approach, joined with a refined short game and exceptional wedge play, has also proved to be particularly well-suited to a circuit that Irwin calls “a temperament tour.”

“I think this tour is more about precision, knowing where your ball is going, scoring, just getting the job done,” said Alker, whose mind has increasingly cleared as a result of his financial windfalls and aging children.

With his patchwork of methods, he defended his Insperity Invitational title days later. This year and last, he beat Steve Stricker, a past American captain at the Ryder Cup, by four strokes.

It is not unheard-of for the senior circuit in the United States to yield athletic reinvention or renewal. Much of Bernhard Langer’s pre-50 success played out in Europe, but at 65, he is a victory away from seizing Irwin’s record. And Gil Morgan claimed 25 senior tour titles despite never having won a major.

But Langer finished atop the Masters Tournament leaderboard twice, and Morgan had eight top-10 finishes in majors, including two third-place P.G.A. Championship showings. Alker? He has never appeared in a Masters or, until now, a P.G.A. Championship, though he once managed a tie for 19th at a British Open.

His arrival on the senior tour had not exactly unnerved the circuit’s elite: “I had heard the name here and there,” Langer said, “but it wasn’t like an Ernie Els is coming on tour.”

Then he saw Alker play.

“He should have been winning tournaments left and right and all over the place because he seems to have it all,” Langer said. “He’s got a beautiful golf swing — I actually enjoy watching his golf swing — and he hits the ball long, straight. His short game is pretty spot on, and obviously he’s getting better with age, like red wine or something.”

As a boy in New Zealand, Alker reveled in soccer, tennis and cricket since he had not been big enough, he lamented, to make much of a mark in rugby. But Alker’s father was a golfer, and the son took up the game seriously around the time he was 10.

“I just got hooked on the small things, the discipline you needed,” he said. “It wasn’t just one thing you had to be good at. You had to be good at everything.”

Around the middle of his teenage years, he recalled, he began to wonder whether he could make it as a professional. He was not built to be a ball-basher, but his short game was exemplary, and he seemed to have greater mental command over a round than his peers.

A whirlwind of tours followed: the PGA Tour’s assorted circuits, as well as the European Tour, where the wildly variable conditions offered valuable experience, the Asian Tour, the Canadian Tour and the pre-eminent tour in Australia. He found only sporadic success and lost his PGA Tour card three times, kicking him back into American golf’s version of baseball’s minor leagues. He insists he never thought about quitting — some in his family wondered whether he should — but instead came to anticipate his 50th birthday and a tour he was not certain he would qualify to play long-term.

He swiftly came to embody how golf, as Langer put it, has “a fine line between good and bad, or between very good and just good.”

The whirlwind that has come with being very good has not ruffled Alker. He stays in snazzier hotels now, he said. Sometimes, he confessed reluctantly, he will fly first class. But he still lives in the home that his family bought for less than half of what Tiger Woods earned in his first professional season.

“I’ve dealt with it pretty good,” Alker said of the attention, “because I haven’t had a lot of it.”

Oak Hill Country Club, where the P.G.A. Championship will be played, will pose a formidable test. He is entering with minimal expectations: “keep playing the way I’ve been playing and do the things I’ve been doing well and see how well it holds up and see what happens.”

Irwin, who has played majors at Oak Hill, suggested the course could be favorable to Alker’s strengths.

“He has length to handle most of those long holes,” Irwin said. “Can he get to the par-5s in two? Well, maybe. But you have to keep the ball in the fairway at Oak Hill — you just have to keep the ball out of the trees and keep it in play — and he does that extremely well.”

The cut is expected on Friday, with the tournament scheduled to conclude on Sunday. Next week, Alker will try for another Senior P.G.A. Championship.

“I’m just happy to be here and to still have this opportunity at 51, to still play for this amount of money, to play in this environment with these guys,” Alker said.

“That’s been one of the amazing things about being out here,” he added, “just to get to know the Hall of Famers and major champions that I never really got to know.”

They know him now, of course. If not, they can find him on a lamppost.

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