PALM HARBOR, Fla. — The uphill climb to the 18th green at Innisbrook was nothing compared with the journey that brought Kevin Streelman his first PGA Tour victory.
He burned up three cars driving some 400,000 miles across the country playing the mini-tours. He used to clean clubs during the week and caddie on the weekends.
His biggest claim on tour was winning $1 million from a bonus competition called the Kodak Challenge. His last win was five years ago in the club championship at Whisper Rock.
Streelman won the Tampa Bay Championship on Sunday in his 153rd start on the PGA Tour.
The way he played this weekend on the tough Copperhead course –particularly the back nine – made it look as if he had done this many times before.
“Always had a dream of getting here,” Streelman said. “And so to get this is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent late into the evening, and getting up early in the morning. And it’s really a dream come true.”
Streelman took the lead for good with a 5-iron into 6 feet on the par-3 13th, the toughest at Innisbrook on the final day, for a birdie.
“Probably the best shot of my life in that situation,” Streelman said. “It’s just how I envisioned it and I pulled it off.”
He played with so much peace and precision that his target on the daunting tee shot at the 16th hole was a group of four trees. He aimed between the second and third tree. And he met his final challenge with a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole, leading to a 4-under 67.
Streelman didn’t make a bogey over the last 37 holes. He didn’t miss a shot the last 11 holes.
The victory sends Streelman, who finished at 10-under 274, to the Masters Tournament for the second time in his career.
Boo Weekley shot 63 and finished second.
Weekley teed off three hours the leaders and had to wait to see if his score would be enough. He kept up hopes until Streelman made birdie on the 17th, and then ripped another tee shot down the middle on the 18th.
Cameron Tringale had 66 and finished alone in third when Leonard, who earlier made bogey from the bunker on the 16th, three-putted the final hole for a 71. Leonard wound up in a tie for fourth with defending champion Luke Donald (69) and Greg Chalmers (70).
The other big winner was Jordan Spieth, the 19-year-old from Texas who holed a 50-foot chip for birdie on the 17th hole and made a 7-foot par putt on the final hole for 70 to tie for seventh.
That gave him enough money to earn special temporary membership on the PGA Tour for the rest of the year, meaning he can take unlimited sponsor exemptions.
Until making that chip, Spieth was projected to be $195 short of the temporary membership, which is based on earning the equivalent of 150th on the money list last year.
“That would have been brutal,” he said with a grin. “But it’s nice to get the crowd excited on 17. That was one of the coolest shots I’ve ever hit. That was as loud as it gets. Hair on the back of your neck stands up. But yeah, if I was $200, short, I would have just asked if I could pay them $200.”
He now has earned $521,893 in three starts, the bulk of that coming from a runner-up finish in the Puerto Rico Open last week.
The 34-year-old Streelman had the 14th consecutive win by an American in official PGA Tour events, dating to Tommy Gainey at Sea Island last fall. Americans have won the first 12 events of the season, their best streak since winning 13 in a row in 1989.
All that mattered to Streelman was finally getting a win.
“Just keep chasing your dreams,” Streelman said. “You never know what will happen.”
Sixteen players were within three shots of the lead when the final round began, and anything could have happened. No one imagined a 63 at Innisbrook, and Weekley’s round was so strong that it was 8.6 shots better than the field average.
“That will go down as one of the best rounds of the year,” Pat Perez said in the parking lot, pleased with his own 67 and stunned someone could have a 63.
Weekley began his round by missing a 4-foot birdie putt, and he closed with such brilliance that he ran off three straight birdies on the back nine from inside 2 feet.
“It was impressive,” Weekley said. “Even I’m still kind of shocked at how good I really hit it. The greens that I missed, I thought were going to be perfect. Overall, one of the best days I’ve had in ball striking in a long time.”
Considering what was on the line, Streelman’s performance might have been better, even if his score was only 67. He had to play in the final group, knowing that he hasn’t had a chance this good to finally win.
“That was really cool,” Streelman said. “I just stayed really patient, and I had a peace about me today.”
Leonard tied him for the lead on the 12th, where Streelman missed a short birdie. Every shot after that was right where Streelman was aiming, including the key shot on the 16th hole, when he hit driver with a baby cut that worked its way around the lake.
The birdie on the 17th kept some stress out of the final hole, and Streelman played that the way he had the other holes on the back nine.
‘’It definitely has not sunk in yet,” Streelman said. “It’s a total dream come true. 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 very 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.”