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Former Duke men's golfer Kevin Streelman discusses PGA Tour success, charitable efforts

Streelman is ranked among the top 50 men's golfers in the world.
Streelman is ranked among the top 50 men's golfers in the world.

Kevin Streelman, Trinity ’01, finished second at the Travelers Championship and tied for seventh at the Workday Charity Open in his last two starts on the PGA Tour. Streelman, who captained the Duke men’s golf team during his senior year, has carved out an impressive career on tour, with two career victories and three top-five finishes just this season. 

The Chronicle spoke with Streelman over the phone last week to discuss his PGA Tour success, his experiences at Duke and his charitable endeavors over the years.

Editor's note: This article was written before Streelman's seventh-place finish at the Workday Charity Open.

The Chronicle: You went from being on a long break to being in the thick of things on the back nine in your third tournament back [at the Travelers Championship]. Were there any differences with your mentality in the situation, or was it just back to normal?

Kevin Streelman: The layoff was strange for all of us as we know. I enjoyed it to be honest. In Phoenix at the time there weren't many cases. That’s changed as of late, but I had a great time with my family, the weather was great, it was at a time where I’m usually on the road a lot and I'm usually not there. My son's now getting into golf, so I was playing with him almost every day and cooking with my family, so I had really had a good time during quarantine. That being said, I wasn't happy to come out and miss my first two cuts, but that being said too I had a scoring average of about 70 during those first four rounds. I wasn't playing bad—I was just missing cuts by one or two, but I knew my game was pretty good. Going up to Hartford, it’s my favorite course in the world, I get up there and things just feel good. I had a great first couple of rounds, got in contention and I just said on Sunday that ‘I'm just going to try and hammer it down here and try and win this thing.’ 

I knew turning on that back nine that anything could happen, and it was awesome birdieing 10. Unfortunately I left it in the heart short on 11 which would have been huge, but then made the nice birdie at 13. I did what I was supposed to on 14, almost chipped in at 16 and then on 17, if that thing comes down that hill it’s a kick-in. For it to stay on top of the hill was just a real bummer for me, because I knew I would have to be very protective of my pace on that putt and couldn’t really give it a run. On 18, I just tugged the drive a little, it caught that fairway bunker and I didn't hit the wedge close enough. The one I needed was 17, but to be in contention, it’s what I do it for. 

I love it. It’s so much fun to be in that heat and just see what you got. I’m also at a point in my career now where I don't have much to lose. If I get that opportunity, I just go for it. I’ve screwed up at times trying to play safe or play not to screw up, and I just hate that feeling.  I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror that night saying, ‘Oh I didn't go for this pin, I should have when I had a chance to win.’ So, I kind of made a commitment to myself a few years ago to get back to big tournaments, where I want to be. I just recently got back in the top-50 in the world, I was really proud of that, it was a big goal of mine, and to be in this situation, if you get an opportunity, you have to go for it and try to take it. I was really trying to do that at Hartford, but man, it was close. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t, but I gave it a good run and I was proud of that. 

TC: Based on your past performances at TPC River Highlands [the site of the Travelers Championship]—you have a win there in 2014 where you birdied the last seven holes and four other top-10 finishes—what is it about that course and setup that fits your game so well?

KS: Honestly, it reminds me of the courses I grew up on in Chicago. It’s the same type of bent grass and beautiful bent greens. The course runs through a small forest and through some hills and rivers, and it just kind of reminds me of the courses I grew up on called Arrowhead and Cantigny, which is in Wheaton, Illinois. It’s just a course that suits my eye really well, I read the greens well and I just have great memories, so I always love getting back there and it’ll always be a special place in my heart. 

TC: The main story the last month or so on the PGA Tour has been Bryson DeChambeau, with his body transformation and how that is indicative of the whole wave toward distance. So, how do you think your game plays into the modern equipment, technology and setups out there on tour?

KS: I’ve always been a really straight driver of the ball. It’s funny, my rookie year, I think I averaged 294 yards off the tee and that was about 33rd on the tour. Right now I think I’m at 297 and I’m 120th on tour. Clearly, these young guys just rip the ball, they’re in great shape and they’re great athletes, so they’re just coming out of college ready to perform at high levels. It just wasn’t the case when I graduated in 2001, you kind of had to spend your years on the mini tours and get your game ready to feel comfortable. I didn’t get out there until I was 27. If you hit it far enough you can play any of these golf courses. I still feel like I hit it far enough, but it’s obviously a huge advantage to be able to hit it 320 or 330 versus 305, so for me, I’m at a point where I try to be really smart. I know these golf courses really well, so I know where the pins are going to be and I try to leave myself in the right spots. I’ve always had good control with my irons, and if my putter’s on like it was at Hartford, I know I can compete with anybody. It's just continuing to work on my putting and short game, keeping it all tight and just trying to outsmart some of these guys on these golf courses. 

The best way to protect a golf course is to narrow the fairways, make the rough as gnarly as possible and firm up the greens, so if you're not in the fairways you just can't keep the balls on the greens. There are weeks at Colonial like that, where the rough has been up, it gets windy and the screens are firm. You can carry the corners all you want and have 85 or 90 yards in, but out of the thick Bermuda rough to a firm green and some wind, you're not going to hold the green. In those instances, you're better to be back at 160 or 150 out of the fairway where you can actually spin the ball and control your golf shot. So that's what these courses need to be in order to hold back that sort of distance. Just making the course longer helps out the longer players that much more. It's not just about moving it longer—it needs to be moved smarter and it needs to be moved tighter. Maybe the bombers need to have the same size of fairway as the rest of the players to make it fair. At some of these courses, if you carry it 300, all of a sudden, the fairway doubles in size because you carry the two side bunkers—that's not fair. It should be the same width of the fairway at 330 as it is at 295. Then, all of a sudden, you’re comparing apples to apples there.

TC: There’s been a lot of adjustments to how you guys have conducted yourselves on and off the course since the restart at Colonial. How has it been to play and travel under these restrictions with the tour’s bubble in mind?

KS: I think the tour has done a phenomenal job thus far. They've asked us to not go to restaurants or bars when we’re on the road and to get takeout food. They've had food at the golf course that's prepared and handled safely. Everyone's in their masks and has gloves on, we’re all travelling together for the most part, especially in between tournaments. United has two planes going each Monday morning to the next spot that we pay for. We’re just trying to do all the smart things we can to keep the show going and we want to just put on a great product for our sponsors and for our fans and just push through this. 

It’s just an odd time. I’m proud of what the tour has done and we're fortunate to be able to play outside and not play a sport where we run into each other and have to all handle the same football, basketball or baseball. We have our own golf balls and kind of stay out of each other's ways, so we’re fortunate in that regard, but I’m also proud of the way the tour has handled it. They've been smart about it and we haven't had many positive tests, knock on wood. As long as that's the case we're just going to keep on keeping on.

TC: When you were a senior at Duke, you were the captain of the team and you were teammates with Leif Olson, who was also on the PGA Tour. Obviously, you had good competition internally, so how did your experience at Duke help contribute to your eventual mindset as a professional golfer?

KS: It was very different to be honest. Duke was a blast—they’re still some of my best friends in the world. Paul Tucker was the co-captain along with me and Denver Brown, right below us there was Matt Krauss, Brandon LaCroix and Leif. We’re all still great friends, so that was a really special time in my life. I really enjoyed my time at Duke. I had the greatest coach in the world in Rob Myers, God rest his soul. He was just the classiest individual I’ve ever run across. He was more of a dad to us then he was our coach, but I loved playing for him and for Duke. When I left Duke, you’re on your own and it’s time to figure this professional golf thing out by yourself. It’s a whole different ball game—no one's giving you golf clubs, golf balls or bags with Duke on them anymore. I was ready to give this professional golf thing a try and hit the road on my own. 

TC: After you graduated in 2001, you took your mom's Nissan Altima and drove to the Dakotas Tour. What was it like starting your professional career pretty soon after graduation and grinding and progressing until eventually getting your [PGA Tour] card six years later?

KS: It was six years of working my tail off. I crisscrossed the country, in total I counted up close to 400,000 miles, I drove back and forth from Maine to Florida to California to Arizona, all over the world to be honest. Many tour events in Guatemala, all over Canada. It was crazy, but it was some of the best memories of my life. I was dead broke, just trying to get by and caddying when I needed some money. I was working at golf clubs, scrubbing clubs, charging carts and picking range balls, whatever I could to keep the dream alive. Finally, on my sixth trip to Q-School in 2007, I made it through and got to finals. I think it was about 3,200 people that tried, and I finished tied for 14th and the top 25 got their PGA Tour cards. Somehow, I've been able to hold on to it ever since—it’s been a blast.

TC: You were talking about the camaraderie you had with your teammates at Duke. Out on tour there’s obviously multiple generations of Duke golfers—do you stay in contact with any of them?

KS: Joe Ogilvie has always been a big brother to me. He was always the guy, when I was on those mini tours, that I was asking questions like, ‘Who’s this tournament director, which hotel should I stay at here, how do I get into this tournament?’ His phone was always open to me and I really appreciate that. We’ve stayed great friends to this day—he now works for an investment fund out of Dallas called Wallace Capital. I’m friends with all of the people he works with and we stayed really tight. It’s been fun because he was about five years in front of me and then five years behind me was Ryan Blaum, and Ryan and I have been good friends. He’s had a great run here and has been on the tour for the last number of years. Then Adam Long came up—he was five years behind Blaum. Long and I have become buddies—we play practice rounds together and I try and give him some advice. I think he's perfectly 10 years younger than me—he's 31 and I’m 41. Wes Roach is also out there too, so it's fun cheering those guys on and keeping an eye on what they’re doing. 

TC: I found a podcast that you did with Golf.com, and you were talking about how you were friends with a line monitor who helped you get into some Duke basketball games. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KS: Yeah, I didn't mean for that to cause some havoc between some Duke alums out there. (Laughs) You did what you had to do to get into a game. We found out he was a big golfer, I forget his name unfortunately, so we would get him out to the course and give him a dozen balls or something and get him a free round here and there. When the big games came up, we would just show up right before game time and he would slide us in the front. I was there for some great years too, those 1990s teams and the 2001 team my senior year with Shane Battier, Jayson Williams—they beat everybody. 

Actually, a neat story with Duke from that night in 2001. So we played at Augusta State’s tournament the weekend of the Final Four. So, Duke wins the Final Four game Saturday and they get to the championship on Monday night, our tournament’s over Sunday and everyone who plays in this Augusta State tournament that weekend gets tickets to go to the Monday practice round at Augusta. That was my first time at Augusta National, so we spent all morning just running around Augusta, just so excited. I’m a senior about to turn pro in two months—it’s the most inspirational, memorable moment of my life, and it was literally 10 years later where I had my first week where I played in The Masters. We spent all morning at Augusta, watching Tiger, watching Duval, and then we drove back to Duke that afternoon. We got on a van, we ran home and went back to our fraternity house, and they won the national championship that night. I mean we were up until seven in the morning, it was the greatest 24 hours for a 21-year old kid ever. 

TC: You talk a lot about your partnership with Compassion International and being able to help provide basic resources and needs to children in poverty. How important is your commitment to Compassion?

KS: I think it’s extremely important to use any platform we have, whether it’s print, sports, family or friends, to give back to those who are less fortunate and in need. I’m a Christian, and I’m a big believer in my faith, and I believe in representing God who gave me this platform. Compassion is just an incredible organization that goes to the ends of the earth, to people who just have nothing, and tries to give them basic medical needs, water, food and love. What they do and go through to help others just blows me away. To see videos and read stories—one day I’ll be on trips with them to just check it out and it’s just incredible. They’ve put together these community centers in parts of Africa, the Philippines, all over, to give people a place to go to not only hear the word but just to get shelter from very difficult life conditions. 

We [the tour] have personally started, developed, and funded these community centers throughout the world, places where people can get some help. It’s impacted hundreds, if not thousands, of children and families. It’s just the best. It’s important to my wife and I to leave a legacy that is much bigger than any silly thing we do with a golf ball, and that’s one of the main places where our heart goes. We’re very proud of Compassion and I’m just honored to be an ambassador along with them.

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