Commentary

Kevin Streelman's career on course

Updated: March 18, 2013, 2:59 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- It will never top the list of his achievements, not when he just won his first PGA Tour event on Sunday. But Kevin Streelman is also a member at an exclusive golf club in Arizona where just a few years ago he worked as a caddie.

That, alone, is pretty impressive, even if perhaps not as stout as playing the final 37 holes at Innisbrook's Copperhead course without a bogey to claim his first victory at the Tampa Bay Championship presented by EverBank.

[+] EnlargeKevin Streelman
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesKevin Streelman was once denied a coaching job -- as an assistant, no less -- at his alma mater, Duke. Fast forward to 2013 and the 34-year-old is now a PGA Tour winner.

Streelman, 34, did have career earnings of more than $6 million coming into this year, so it's not as though this is some rags-to-riches story. But the former Duke golfer -- who along the way applied for and was turned down for an assistant golf coach position at his alma mater -- did beat it around golf's bush leagues, struggling to put himself in a position where he prevailed.

Much like the tour event he won Sunday -- the Tampa Bay Championship is without a title sponsor and in danger of not being on the 2013-14 schedule -- Streelman has fought to remain part of the scene, never quite having enough success to be secure.

This win by 2 shots over a hard-charging Boo Weekley helps take care of that.

He's in the Masters in three weeks, as well as the PGA Championship later in the year. The Tournament of Champions will also be on the schedule.

All for a guy who had to caddie to help finance his golf career -- all in the past 10 years.

"I went from caddie to club champion at Whisper Rock, which is a pretty cool story," Streelman said.

Whisper Rock is the Arizona course designed by Phil Mickelson with a roster of tour pros who paid full freight -- believed to be six figures -- just to join. In 2002, a year after graduating from Duke, Streelman caddied there on the weekends as well as another course during the week, trying to make ends meet and keep his golf dream alive.

"And then I would play golf from 2 until dark," he said.

At one point, he led the money lists on both the Hooters Tour and the Gateway Tours at the same time, which isn't exactly the same as leading the money list on the PGA Tour and European Tour at the same time -- as Rory McIlroy did last year and Luke Donald in 2011.

But it nonetheless helped him get to where he is now. Streelman made it to the PGA Tour in 2008, having survived all three stages of Q-school. He's been a consistent money winner ever since, and finished among the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings in 2010 -- which got him to the 2011 Masters.

He achieved that FedEx accomplishment on the basis of a tie for third at the 2010 Barclays, which makes winning and getting to Augusta National all the more gratifying.

"To do it on my own is very special," he said. "To do it at Tampa Bay and Innisbrook and such an incredible golf course is really, really awesome."

Almost to a man, those competing in the tournament say similar things about the venue, how it is one of the best on tour, that none of the other Florida courses has anything on the Copperhead.

Nonetheless, the tournament went without a title sponsor this year, and will need to sign someone up in the next few months to return in 2014. And that's how it always has been, which since its inception in 2000 as an opposite field event never has been able to keep a title sponsor beyond one contract.

Last year, Transitions Optical decided not to renew, after PODS did the same thing four years earlier and Chrysler before that. It is a testament to the PGA Tour that such sponsorship issues are not more prevalent, especially in a difficult economy the past few years.

But it does point to the have, have-not status of PGA Tour events. Despite great weather and a well-regarded golf course, the Tampa Bay event finds itself in a precarious place on the schedule -- as do a handful of other events throughout the year.

The sponsorship responsibilities don't decrease, even though the field strength is inevitably going to look poor compared to last week's WGC event in Miami, where nearly all of the top 50 in the world participated. Two weeks prior, it was another WGC event with the top 65 in the world entered. At the Honda Classic, McIlroy and Tiger Woods played. Next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational has nine of the top 15 in the world, including defending champion Woods.

So perhaps it was fitting that a former caddie, Streelman, and a Panhandle beauty in Weekley, who once worked as a hydro-blaster at a chemical plant, should be the ones at the top.

Weekley finished nearly three hours ahead of Streelman, shooting an 8-under-par 63 that included a back-nine 30 to post 8 under. And for a long, long time, it looked like it might hold up, or at least qualify for a playoff.

"Even I'm kind of shocked at how good I really hit it," said Weekly, a two-time tour winner and member of the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team who has battled injuries the last few years. "Overall it was one of the best days I've had in ball striking in a long time."

Weekley finished so early he didn't know what to do. "Ain't got a clue yet," he said. "I was going to go catch me some bass in Orlando, but that's fine. I'll wait around."

He did, eventually making his way to the driving range to prepare for a possible playoff. But Streelman never flinched. His birdie putt at the 13th hole gave him a 1-stroke lead, he knocked in a testy par putt at the 16th, then drained a 20-footer for birdie at the 17th to go 2 shots ahead.

A slew of tour winners who were in contention -- Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia -- could not make a move.

Streelman, playing in his 153rd PGA Tour event, had his first win and an invitation to the Masters.

"It's a total dream come true," Streelman said. "Ten years ago I was in a car driving to mini tours and the Hooters Tour and Gateway Tour and U.S. Pro Tour and I've been very blessed, but I've worked hard to get here, too.

"The game is getting harder and younger and these kids are fearless out here. I've worked diligently and I think smarter as of late and fortunately it paid off."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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