Steven Alker’s persistence makes Player of the Year honor even more gratifying
11 Min Read
Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
FOUNTAIN HILLS, Ariz. -- Steven Alker keeps a collection bowl on a side table in his living room, near the garage door. Its contents are mostly keys, with scattered knickknacks mixed in.
Then you realize the collection bowl isn’t just a bowl. It’s a trophy. Further inspection reveals it’s the trophy from the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2014 Cleveland Open. Alker defeated Dawie van der Walt on the 11th playoff hole, the longest playoff in PGA TOUR-sanctioned history that declared a winner.
The trophy represents a piece of history, yet it has utility value in the Alker household. It’s unassuming, blended amidst family photographs and mementos.
The trophy and its placement serve instructive in evaluating Alker’s approach to life and golf. The New Zealand native, 51, bounced between various professional golf circuits in understated fashion, utilizing a self-described “efficient” game to play the Korn Ferry Tour for the better part of two decades, winning four times, and earning his TOUR card three times. He never kept his TOUR card or earned a top-10 finish at the highest level, his distance disadvantage holding him back. In unassuming fashion, though, he kept plodding.
During that Cleveland Open playoff, Alker treaded water with 10 straight pars before a winning birdie on the 11th extra hole.
Remarkably, plenty of daylight remained that day in northeast Ohio. The same could be said for his career.
Alker remained in peak competitive shape through his late 40s on the Korn Ferry Tour, and when he became eligible for PGA TOUR Champions in July 2021, he took his opportunity and ran with it. He Monday qualified on his first try, the Boeing Classic that August, kick-starting a run of six consecutive top-10s that kept him off the Monday tee sheet. He qualified for the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs and won the TimberTech Championship to earn fully exempt status in 2022. He was only just beginning.
Alker won four times in 2022. He finished top-three 13 times in 23 starts. He led the PGA TOUR Champions in scoring average (68.27), a season-long mark topped only three times in the past 20 years (Bernhard Langer twice; Fred Couples). He won the season-long Charles Schwab Cup.
In a vote of his peers, Alker has been named the 2022 PGA TOUR Champions Player of the Year, it was announced Tuesday in advance of the circuit’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.
On a Tour with names like Harrington, Jimenez, Couples and Els, the name Alker might never resonate the same way in galleries across the country. Alker himself might never feel fully comfortable sharing the stage; he admits it can still be a pinch-me experience when competing alongside major champions and Hall of Famers.
“I don’t feel like a star,” said Alker in his trademark understated manner. “There are a lot more stars out there than me.”
To his peers, though, it makes no difference. Alker’s PGA TOUR career might not have met his own standards, but he refused to let that define his career in its entirety. He recommitted to fitness in the 18 months prior to turning 50, and he hits the ball farther than he did in his late 20s and 30s, the typical athletic prime. He has essentially made this his athletic prime.
“Steven is probably in the same physical shape now as he was 20 years ago,” said Padraig Harrington, who finished runner-up to Alker on the season-long Charles Schwab Cup and was named 2022 PGA TOUR Champions Rookie of the Year on Tuesday. “He’s probably hitting the ball every bit as far or further than he did 20 years ago. He’s not at a disadvantage that he would have been on the regular tours.
“He’s always been a fine player, and he’s gained confidence here, he’s kept himself in contention. He’s a truly deserved winner this year.”
“I got here by kind of dreaming,” Alker said. “And I like to dream.”
Hanging on the wall in Alker’s living room, not far from the Cleveland Open trophy, is a wooden plaque commemorating the day he married his wife Tanya. March 2, 2003. Their 20th anniversary approaches, and they’ll celebrate with a trip to the New Zealand Open. Alker will play, and Tanya will caddie.
It harkens back to their early days as a couple. They met around 23 years ago; Tanya, an England native, was working for Princess Cruises at the time. She took a vacation to New Zealand with a friend. She met Steven, who became her de facto souvenir.
“I didn’t want a T-shirt, I guess,” Tanya quipped.
Shortly thereafter, Alker convinced Tanya to leave her job with two months left on a contract. They had only known each other for six months. Being together meant time on PGA TOUR Canada, where Tanya would caddie. She took the leap of faith.
“Tanya got thrown in the deep end,” Alker said. “It was either going to work or it wasn’t. I said, ‘Come on, let’s go, let’s give it a shot,’ and so I think that helped us. We went straight in, almost skipped the courting bit and went into business and pleasure.”
The commemorative plaque features music notes for Elton John’s song “That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” It was the first song they danced to. They also saw John in concert last fall, in the midst of Alker’s magic carpet ride through the PGA TOUR Champions campaign.
It wasn’t always as easy as it looked last summer. At times, it more closely resembled the lyrics of their memorable first dance.
… Between you and me I could honestly say That things can only get better
Money can be tight on the Korn Ferry Tour, particularly without a substantial nest egg. Missing cuts doesn’t help matters. Alker missed in New Zealand, Louisiana, California, Mexico, Canada and Ohio. He might shoot 2 under, he might shoot 9 over. The scores changed, but the result never did. The season tally reflected 21 starts, 21 missed cuts. He didn’t cash a single check in competition.
Alker is a self-described private guy – “maybe a bit of a loner in terms of a golf pro.” But he knows that success doesn’t come alone. That season more than ever, Alker needed Tanya’s guidance. She delivered.
“I would listen, talk, get him to speak about how he was feeling and the situation,” Tanya remembers. “But not push it. There would be absolutely no point yelling at him. What’s that going to achieve? So just try and support him and love him, and let him know that we did, regardless.
“It was his job. Not our family. Golf is golf. Family is life.”
Golf is all Alker has ever wanted to do – he’s not sure what else he could do. His mom Mary remembers him hitting plastic clubs around the yard (a birthday present) at age 4. He started traveling overseas to play when he was 14 or 15. Mary caddied frequently in amateur events and saw firsthand her son’s unwavering commitment to his craft.
“The big ‘P’ came in,” Mary said. “Perseverance.”
As Alker sees it, he learned it from his parents. Mary spent time as a receptionist and data analyst, and she still works odd jobs into her mid-70s. His dad Bill worked as a sales rep and owned a few businesses, including a fish-and-chips shop in their hometown of Hamilton, New Zealand.
Steven worked in the fish-and-chips shop; he also spent time as a petroleum engineer and a carpet cleaner. He inherited his parents’ instincts of refusing to settle.
“I don’t like to feel comfortable,” Alker said. “I’m not comfortable being comfortable. You get a little bit sloppy, you can get a little bit complacent.”
So not even a nightmarish 2010 season could derail Alker’s dreams. If anything, he was inspired to rewrite his story. A playoff victory at the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2013 Utah Championship – including a third-round 61 – reset his full status. The following year, his marathon playoff victory in Cleveland led to a spot in the top 25 on the Korn Ferry Tour season-long standings and a PGA TOUR card for 2015, his first year with TOUR status since 2003. He had fought back after all.
Alker played one more TOUR season in 2017, then returned to the Korn Ferry Tour. He finished outside the top 75 on the 2018 season-long standings, meaning a return to Q-School.
As it turned out, the final round at Final Stage of Q-School that year kick-started his path to PGA TOUR Champions. He remembers the day well. He drained an 8-foot birdie at No. 17, allowing for a routine par on 18 to card 7-under 65 and earn guaranteed starts without a shot to spare. Among those he tied at T34 that week: Scottie Scheffler.
Alker kept his full Korn Ferry Tour card in 2019, and the COVID-induced 2020-21 combined season meant Alker could compete against the “kids” up until his 50th birthday.
It served him well.
“That was huge, just getting into that mentality,” Alker said. “The low cuts, having to score low; every week was like, ‘OK, you’ve got to keep going from the outset, go as low as you can,’ and you need that mentality on PGA TOUR Champions as well. It’s only three days; if you want to win golf tournaments, you’ve got to get off to a solid start.
“So it put me in a good place to go out and compete on PGA TOUR Champions. There are so many good players on the Korn Ferry Tour; the depth that’s there, it’s incredible. They all hit it good and long. That’s just the way the game’s gone, they’re more prepared; the young guys are ready for the PGA TOUR more than ever.”
“The players who tend to do nicely out here are the ones who are still trying to be competitive from 45 years of age to 50 years of age,” added Harrington. “Those are the ones. You can't give the game up for five years or eight years or 10 years and hope to come out here and find it again unless you were a world-class player. You've got to keep being competitive, and he did that. That's why you're seeing his good play now. He was still on the Korn Ferry Tour when he was 49 years of age. There's not a lot of guys at 49 who could do that.”
Alker finished T11 in his last Korn Ferry Tour start before turning 50. With just two weeks left in the Regular Season, he opted to play out the season, perhaps capturing lightning in a bottle for a final PGA TOUR return. He nearly did just that, contending down the stretch at the Utah Championship en route to a T5 finish. He then missed the cut at the Regular Season-ending Pinnacle Bank Championship, a bittersweet week as he bid farewell to the Korn Ferry Tour before turning his attention to the next chapter.
“Mixed emotions,” Alker said. “Maybe a little bit of relief that it had come to an end; I’ve got this new opportunity to go into PGA TOUR Champions. There’s a bit of a letdown maybe that it’s coming to an end. Just a whole mix of emotions. Excitement that I’d possibly have the chance to play on Champions.”
Alker hadn’t even made up his mind about attempting the Boeing Classic qualifier, but with Tanya’s support, he headed to Seattle and carded 68, one stroke clear of a playoff, to earn a tee time amongst the game’s greats. He finished T7, showing he could hang. The next week, he finished third at The Ally Challenge. He belonged.
The next year-and-a-half provided further validation.
“Not many of us knew a lot about Steven before he turned 50, but the scores don’t lie,” said 18-time PGA TOUR Champions winner Jay Haas. “He has been on a run as good as any we’ve seen, Hale- or Bernhard-like. We talked briefly at Hualalai last year about which courses or tournaments that would be good ones to take off and which ones might suit his game better than others, but the way he plays, it doesn’t matter.
“He’s a beautiful driver of the ball, and his iron play is the best. He’s a ball-striking machine, and it’s no surprise when he hits a good shot or shoots a low round.”
Alker might not consider himself a star, but the vote of his peers indicates otherwise. On a Tour with major winners and Hall of Famers, those very players deemed him the best of them all.
Tanya remembers a time early in their relationship – perhaps somewhere in Canada, or Australia, or any of the dozens of countries they visited along the way – when Alker promised he would someday make it.
Together, they proved him right.
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.