Steven Alker still driven to succeed in the USA

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:07 31/08/2014
Steven Alker
Getty
COMEBACK KID: Kiwi golfer Steven Alker will return to the PGA Tour next season after more than a decade away.

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In 2002, New Zealand basked in its largest ever PGA Tour presence.

Paving the way for Michael Campbell to win the US Open and world match play titles three years later, Craig Perks, Frank Nobilo, Phil Tataurangi, Grant Waite and Michael Long were all flying the Kiwi flag on golf's most lucrative tour, regularly featuring in majors and with Perks even notching a stunning win at the Players Championship, golf's unofficial fifth major, that year.

But it's been slim pickings since. A barren decade for New Zealand golf has been very occasionally punctuated by the likes of Danny Lee and Tim Wilkinson flitting in and out of the top American tour and both Lee and Mark Brown winning the Johnnie Walker Classic, a well-regarded European Tour event.

So dry had the landscape become that even three years ago, before Lydia Ko was anywhere near her current fame, a 14-year-old girl was being used as the face of a national sport.

Ko, now a genuine global brand at just 17, is the figurehead more so than ever. But the men are starting to fight back.

With Lee and Wilkinson finding their way back on tour this season, and yielding just enough consistency to retain their tour cards, for the first time in years, three New Zealanders will hold fulltime status on the PGA Tour next season.

After 11 years between drinks, Arizona-based Hamiltonian Steven Alker is back with the big boys.

Guaranteeing himself a top-25 finish on the notoriously competitive feeder circuit, the Web.Com Tour, before the season is even finished, Alker says the priority is retaining his status but, at 43, acknowledges it's time to make a move, look beyond mere survival and focus on winning.

"It's been a really great summer and it's worked out nicely, but I'm really looking forward to next season," Alker told the Sunday Star-Times from North Plains, Oregon, where he finished fifth at the Web.Com's Portland Open last week.

"Retaining the PGA Tour card is the first step, for sure, but ultimately my thinking is to be out there to win. That has to be the focus.

"There's so much money out there now you don't have to win any more and still make a very nice living. But I haven't got many years left in me, it would be nice to go in with the attitude that on the right course, and if things go well, there's no reason why I can't win."

Having previously held a full tour card in 2003, Alker says he's become a much better player since, but that season will nevertheless be a useful reference for 2015.

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"This time around I'll do a few things differently. I was a lot greener back then, it was 11 years ago and I'm a lot more mature and comfortable in my own skin - and in what I'm doing out there," he said.

"I don't think I necessarily tried to change a lot but when you go out there first, you feel like you've got to step up your game, you're on a different level, you've got to work harder and try and do things better. That can get in the way of what you're trying to do."

Alker says the secret to this season has not been drastic improvement in any specific area, more incremental gains across the board, with the highlight being a win at the Cleveland Open which involved an 11-hole playoff against South African Dawie van der Walt - matching the record for the longest playoff in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event.

"It was a long week because the weekend before I was out in San Francisco doing US Open qualifying. The Monday of that week at the Cleveland Open I had a 36-hole qualifier and made it through. It kind of kick-started something, my game was coming around and I started scoring better," he said.

"I arrived in Cleveland, had a short practice on Tuesday and just carried on from where I left off and won the event, it was a pretty exciting week. I lost track of how many holes we'd played, to be honest. I was just out there doing my thing, in the moment. We just kept making par after par and eventually I made a birdie.

"The adrenaline was going, I really can't remember much of it, it all blurred into one. But it was a fun week and a fun, long day.

"The US Open didn't go well at Pinehurst, I just couldn't carry the form through for another week. I didn't play well and was a bit jaded, but it's always good experience to pay in a major.

"After that I didn't do much for a couple of weeks but then it took off again in Boise and finished second there."

As well as having a decent shot at qualifying for more majors next season, Alker also admits he has at least half an eye on one of the two male spots to play for New Zealand at the 2016 Olympic Games and also a rare return home for the much-improved New Zealand Open under Sir Michael Hill.

"Absolutely, I said to my wife when the first details of Olympic rankings points came out, maybe we'll play in all that stuff. I'd like to really knuckle down and get some points. Obviously two guys get to go - and that would be really neat," he said.

"It's two years away, it's a long-term thing and while ultimately I have to focus on what I'm doing right now, to get amongst it would be great.

"I've not been back to New Zealand properly a long time either, I'd like to get back to play the Open. I played a couple of events in Australia last year and stopped in New Zealand for a couple of days in November last year. It's just tough with children in school over here and scheduling.

"Wherever I play, it should be a good season - it's been a while since three New Zealanders have been out on the PGA Tour."

- Sunday Star Times

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