Steven Alker clear favorite to win Charles Schwab Cup
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Relatively unknown until turning 50, continues to enjoy wild success on PGA TOUR Champions
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
PHOENIX – As he prepares for this week’s Charles Schwab Cup Championship, Steven Alker’s PGA TOUR Champions dominance can be parsed several ways, but this nugget stands out:
With the exception of No. 6 Thongchai Jaidee, who played most of his career in Europe and Asia, those who rank Nos. 2-5 and 7-10 in the Charles Schwab Cup standings are familiar names who had long careers on the PGA TOUR: Padraig Harrington, Jerry Kelly, Bernhard Langer, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Stephen Ames, Steve Flesch, Alex Cejka, and K.J. Choi.
The average number of PGA TOUR career starts for those eight players is 411. As for the unheralded Alker, between 1998-2017 he played in just 86 PGA TOUR tournaments and his best finish was a tie for 17th at the 2003 Buick Invitational.
“I don’t really know him,” Brian Gay said of the 51-year-old New Zealander.
But that segues into an equally typical reaction to the Alker story:
“It’s incredible, really,” added Gay, who has made 645 starts on the PGA TOUR and is No. 29 in the standings at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. “To play that long and come out here without status and tear it up? Pretty awesome – and he never had anything to fall back on.”
Credit Gay for being spot on, because “tear it up” is exactly what Alker has done. At 50, with no status, he Monday qualified for the Boeing Classic in August of last year. He tied for seventh to ignite a run of six straight top-10 finishes to earn his card, and now stands on the cusp of winning this year’s Charles Schwab Cup. His story is extended deep reverence by his competitors.
“It is one of the best stories in golf – if not the best story in golf,” said Kelly. “People should know about it, because it’s a feel-good story and if that doesn’t inspire other professional golfers that (Alker) made this happen, then that’s a shame.”
If what Alker did in 2021, using that Monday qualifier at the Boeing to record one win and eight other top 10s in 10 starts, was a marvel, his work in 2022 is blanketed in remarkable consistency. In 22 starts he has four wins, four seconds, four thirds, and the clear inside track to the $1 million bonus for winning the Charles Schwab Cup.
Stunning stuff from a guy who 10 years ago ended his Korn Ferry Tour season by missing the cut in six of his last eight tournaments to finish 102nd on the money list. He was 41 and there wasn’t a long-range plan to play the PGA TOUR Champions back then.
“I was just trying to survive,” said Alker, who managed to play each of the next seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour, where he scratched out wins in 2013 and 2014.
But therein lies the key, say Alker’s competitors.
“He did stay competitive; it wasn’t like he was sitting in a pro shop somewhere,” said David Toms, who is 11th in the Charles Schwab Cup standings. “Maybe he’s always been that good, only he wasn’t able to do it at the right time. Maybe he just needed to find the right time. Now he measures up. He came out here ready to play.”
Padraig Harrington, who is the only player who can edge out Alker for the season-long trophy – Harrington has to win and Alker would have to finish no better than a 10-way tie for second – is one month younger than the New Zealander and echoes Toms’ sentiments.
“He’s always been a good player, a good swinger of the club,” said Harrington. “Maybe he was held back by (his lack of) length, but he didn’t stop competing. He was 49 still playing on the Korn Ferry Tour and that’s not easy. But from 45 to 50 he played, and you have to do that. You cannot give the game up for five years and expect to come out and play.”
Kelly calls Alker a study in “grit and determination above and beyond” because it would have been easy to walk away at 45 or 46 rather than grind out long seasons on the KFT.
“But obviously, he had to have those talents in there,” said Kelly, “and for them to come out now has to be a credit to his fortitude.”
Toms wonders aloud if it’s a credit to an attitude that might be fresher and more focused because Alker hasn’t been at the elite level and is hungrier.
“At times the attitude with a lot of us is, I have to do this,” said Toms. “With him, he might be thinking, I get to go do this, and that might help him prepare really well.”
Alker has been outside the top 20 just twice in 22 starts this season – clearly he is prepared. More telling is that he’s got colleagues taking notice, singing his praises, and offering their applause.
“He was always a good player, but never quite this good,” said Langer. “But he’s obviously found something.”
It was suggested to Langer that if only Alker could bottle that “something and sell it,” it would be a priceless commodity.
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” he laughed.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.