Steven Alker of New Zealand poses with the Charles Schwab Cup. Photo/Getty
The script couldn’t have been better for New Zealand golfer Steven Alker this week.
The 51-year-old had the chance to win the PGA Champions Cup Order of Merit title on a course barely a 30-minute
drive from his home in Arizona.
As it played out, an astonishing first full season on the PGA Champions Tour was capped off by Alker finishing third at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship season finale at the Phoenix Country Club, and in doing so, securing the Order of Merit trophy and a US $1 million ($1.64m) bonus.
Remarkably, Alker had no tour status just 15 months ago. He had entered qualifying at the Boeing Classic, where he recorded a tie for seventh which started a run of six consecutive top 10 finishes, including a tournament victory in his penultimate event last year.
What followed is right up there with the best stories in golf this year.
It won’t be unfair to say Alker was a journeyman throughout his PGA Tour career. He notched up 86 starts and failed to record a top 10 finish and missed the cut 47 times. It was similar on the European Tour where he had 80 starts for one top 10 and 42 missed cuts.
So how does he explain his sensational rise?
Speaking to the Herald 24 hours after his triumph, the softly spoken Alker says there were a lot of things involved.
“I’ve been asked that question a lot lately, what’s the secret to the success? How did you do it? It’s a season-long race and I think I’m proud of the consistency I’ve had all year. Persevere and just keep going,” Alker said.
“My game held up well all year. And it’s just one of those proud moments where you think all the work you put in just kind of came to fruition.”
He finished the season with a scoring average of 68.2 in 75 rounds of golf, and by the time the Charles Schwab Cup Championship final rolled around, only one player, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, could catch him. But Alker just needed to finish in the top five among the 33-player field to deny the Irishman, who showed his class by winning the tournament by eight shots.
Alker played 23 events, Harrington played 19 and the Kiwi admitted to briefly doubting the merit of his achievement.
“I look at guys like Harrington and think, well gee, what if they’d played a full season or one of them played the 23 events that most guys play, they could have kicked butt good and proper,” Alker said. “But you know I am the champion, it comes down to points at the end of the year and I had a consistent year. I beat them at times; beat them to win tournaments.
“So yeah, it’s kind of neat, and a lot of respect. I think all the guys have a lot of respect for each other, what they’ve done and the level we’re playing at now.”
Alker has earned a staggering $7.44 million this season and credits much of his success to the fact he was playing regularly on the second tier Korn Ferry Tour during the Covid pandemic before attempting to qualify for the Champions Tour.
“I think playing against the young guys, to be in amongst that company — the low scores on the Korn Ferry Tour week in week out are three, four or five under to make cuts and play the weekend — that keeps it competitive, it keeps you on your toes.
“I think that kept me in the game, kept me sharp, kept me wanting to play. I just think the whole change of atmosphere, going into the Champions was all very exciting or new to me. So that was beneficial.”
Alker’s success is the first in what could be a quite extraordinary trifecta for New Zealand golf. Ryan Fox heads into the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai this week sitting second on the Order of Merit and trying to chase down world No 1 Rory McIlroy, his playing partner for the opening round. And Lydia Ko is in Florida for the LPGA Tour’s season finale Tour Championship. The former world No 1 leads the race for the CME Globe title, the Rolex Player of the Year, and is also in pole position to win the Vare Trophy for best scoring average during the season.
“That is just amazing,” Alker said. “I was just talking about half an hour ago about that scenario, quite possibly we could have three New Zealanders winning the Order of Merit across the globe. I don’t know if that’s ever happened to be honest. Especially for a country down under as small as New Zealand.
“That would be amazing. And for the profile of golf and everything else it would be amazing. Foxy obviously played great last week and that’s encouraging going into this week. Why not take down the number one player in the world? Heck, it’d be great to see. Lydia has been playing well all year as well. So that’d be an amazing scenario, if that were to happen.”
Reflecting on his own year, where he recorded 18 top 10 finishes and won four times including a major championship at the Senior PGA, the word consistency springs to Alker’s mind.
“I putted very well this year, I think consistently pretty good. I drove the ball well; I think I was first in greens and regulation. So there’s some really good stuff on there. But just little small things. My scrambling was good.
“I think as long as I maintain that and make little small improvements, it doesn’t have to be anything drastic. If I can maintain the length, if they can pick up a few extra yards, hey, that would be beneficial on certain courses. But I think for me fitness has been important and for me that’s just staying in shape and being strong and getting ready for the for the start of next year. That’ll be huge.”
The first 24 hours after lifting the Charles Schwab Cup trophy has been a whirlwind for Alker, who spent a good hour and a half at the course handling media commitments before celebrating with some of the players and his caddy Sam Workman.
“He’s been amazing and has stuck with me for the past three years through all this,” Alker said of Workman. “We then went home and had a get together with 50 or 60 family and friends and it was all just a bit of relief. But it wasn’t a late one; I’m 51 now.”
Alker won’t play again this year and is looking forward to returning to New Zealand for the first time in four years in March for the New Zealand Open at Millbrook, where he will be one of the star billings.
“I am thoroughly looking forward to catching up with a lot of friends and family, just to play in front of [them] and get back and play in New Zealand. I love playing at home and Millbrook. I was the touring pro for Millbrook for a few years and spent a lot of time down there with [former Millbrook director of golf] John Griffin and played with Sir Bob Charles down there, so it’s kind of a happy hunting ground.”
Alker admits it will be different playing on the Tour next year as the overall champion, but it’s something he’s relishing. His victory at the Senior PGA Championship has also earned him a start at the 105th PGA Championship at Oak Hill in May.
“It’s certainly opened a few doors in terms of certain tournaments for a long period of time. There are events I will get into for 10 years no matter what my status.”