On the day he turned 50 last summer, Steven Alker was barely clinging to the label of journeyman golfer.
That season, he had yet to record a top-10 in 27 tries on the Korn Ferry Tour. His most recent PGA Tour appearance was nearly a half-decade old. In 25 seasons as a professional golfer, his career earnings were just north of $2.3 million — less than the winner’s purse at all four of this year’s majors. Per year, that’s under $93,000, a number that doesn’t sound bad until you consider the cost of paying for travel, lodging, caddies, coaching, rounds and gear. Once, he missed 21-of-21 cuts in a Korn Ferry season and earned a total of $0 for the year.
Then, in a blink, everything changed. Turns out, Alker’s 50th birthday — July 28, 2021 — was the big break he had spent half his life in search of. By reaching that milestone, he became eligible for the Champions Tour, formerly known as the Senior Tour.
In late August, Alker used a Monday qualifier to earn entry into the Boeing Classic, his first Champions Tour event. In it, he finished tied for 7th, securing a place in the following week’s event. There, he finished 3rd. The next week, another top-10. Then another. And another. By season’s end, he had nine top-10s in 10 events.
All of that set the stage for this year, when Alker has won three times, recorded 14 top-10s and been the Champions Tour’s top earner. He’ll arrive at Phoenix Country Club next month among the favorites for the Charles Schwab Cup Championship — the Champions Tour’s season-ending playoff event.
“The big turnaround was just wanting to move out of the Korn Ferry Tour,” Alker said Thursday at the Schwab Championship media day. “... To play against guys my age and have a new lease on life and on my career and play in a different environment, that really got me going.”
Alker — who moved to the Valley in 2002 — doesn’t spend his days filled with regret or thoughts of what could have been. He’s 51 years old, traveling the country and winning golf tournaments; not a bad life.
But he does wish he had more perspective when he was fighting for a spot on the PGA Tour. Nowadays, he recognizes the value of stepping back, spending time with family and working out, rather than pummeling balls on the range from sun-up to sundown.
“I think I've played with a lot of freedom this year,” Alker said. “If I could go back, I'd play with a lot more freedom than I used to.”
It’s also easier, though, to play with freedom when you’ve earned nearly $4 million in the last 13 months.
“It frees you up a lot,” Alker laughed. “When I walk in the door and the kids ask for $20, I've got $20 in my pocket.”
Mickelson banned from defending title
The only name ahead of Alker on last year’s Schwab Championship leaderboard? Phil Mickelson.
Under normal circumstances, the 52-year-old Mickelson would be far and away the tournament’s biggest draw — and its prohibitive favorite. But this year in golf has, of course, been anything but normal.
Because of Mickelson’s decision to join the Saudi-backed LIV Tour, he’s banned from the PGA Tour — a sanction that extends to the Champions Tour.
On Thursday, Schwab Championship executive director Tiffany Nelson called Mickelson’s absence “sad,” but generally avoided addressing the elephant in the room. Instead, she focused on the former PGA Tour stars who likely will be at Phoenix Country Club in November, a group that includes former major champions Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Bernhard Langer. None of those players, though, carry the same cache as Mickelson, especially among younger and more casual fans.
Schwab Championship’s answer to WM Open’s 17th hole
The big event in Valley golf is, of course, February’s WM Open. And while the Schwab Championship can’t compete with the prestige or grandeur of its PGA Tour cousin, it has answered in one way.
At a party pavilion between 17th green and 15th tee box, fans can enjoy $1 beers every time a golfer on 17 makes birdie.
“That will be fun,” Nelson said.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Steven Alker brings remarkable story to Phoenix's Schwab Championship