'Youngster' Alker blisters Harbor Shores with 63 for first senior major, denying Langer his 12th

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Benton Harbor — Steven Alker can chuck those "My Name Is" stickers.

Less than a year into his Champions Tour career, which followed decades of globe-trotting that included practically no success on the PGA Tour, Alker needs no introductions anymore. The New Zealand native, who turned 50 last July, stormed from four shots back starting the final round to win the Senior PGA Championship at The Golf Club at Harbor Shores.

With nine birdies, Alker fired a final-round, 8-under 63, the low round of the week, to win by three shots over Stephen Ames and six over Bernhard Langer. It was his fourth Champions Tour victory in his last 11 starts.

Steven Alker of New Zealand poses with the trophy after winning the Senior PGA Championship on Sunday in Benton Harbor.

He was holding the massive, 36-pound, 42-inch-tall Alfred S. Bourne Trophy off the 18th green before the last few players even finished their rounds.

"First I saw Arnold Palmer," Alker said of his first glimpse at the championship trophy. "And you twist it and you see Lee Trevino, and you see Jack Nicklaus, and you see Tom Watson. 

"It's pretty cool. Pretty cool."

Pretty cool is an understatement for a man who was never really sure if he'd ever reach these heights, when he was playing the Australasia Tour, or in Canada, or in his brief time on the PGA Tour, or on what's now the Korn Ferry Tour. He never considered walking away from the game entirely, but he used to consider other options to help support a young family, like starting a business, maybe a restaurant.

Certainly, he was to be eating good Sunday night after cashing the largest check of his life, $630,000.

In winning, Alker also held off World Golf Hall of Famer Langer, who started the day two shots back and was tied for the lead with a front-nine 32, then took the lead by one at No. 10 — despite a disappointing par at that par 5, when his tee shot and approach landed in divots. 

Stunningly, Langer — seeking a record 12th senior major (he owns the record at 11) and a 44th Champions Tour win (Hale Irwin is tops all-time, at 45) — then made three straight bogeys on the back nine, from Nos. 12-14, to fall out of contention.

Langer, 64, so steady for so many decades, had made three bogeys all week entering the final round. He believed the bad breaks on No. 10 might've stunted his momentum.

"It was absolutely a missed opportunity," Langer said. "I was 14 under, leading by one I think with eight holes to go, and just didn't close it. I went backward instead of continuing to make birdies. I mean, the holes aren't that easy. Once you get past 11, it becomes a little tougher golf course.

"But there's no reason for me to make three bogeys and a double-bogey the last, whatever, seven holes."

Langer, a two-time Masters champion, made his first major mistake at the par-4 12th, one of the easier holes on the course — Colin Montgomerie made an eagle-2 early in the day — when he found the fairway, but pushed his approach into the right rough. He had a nasty lie there, could only hack out to 30 feet, and missed. Then, at the par-3 13th, he pulled his tee shot, again into the rough, and again into a nasty lie. He couldn't get up and down. Finally, at the par-4 14th, a brutal hole, he found the rough left of the fairway, pulled his approach into the rough, and made yet another bogey. Following the approach into the 14th, Langer flipped his club, the perfectionist not at all pleased with the meltdown.

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Langer began the back nine with a one-shot lead, but trailed by five after the 15th. When he made birdie at the 16th hole, Langer let out a sarcastic "woo" and fist pump, knowing his chances were long gone.

That's, in part, because Alker was making a big-time move — and some of Langer's doing, for sure.

"Just three or four bad shots in a row and a couple of bad decisions, wrong clubs," Langer said.

Alker fell back a ways when he made two double-bogeys in Saturday's third round, but he rallied late in the third round with a couple birdies to stay in the hunt — then immediately hit the range Saturday night to work on his driver. Whatever fix he was looking for, he found, and early Sunday, opening with a front-nine 32. He made four birdies in a row from Nos. 8-11, and missed a short birdie putt at 12. Alker then made a birdie at the par-5 15th, the stuffed his approach at the par-4 16th for another.

The 63 — saved when his tee shot on 18 just avoided the hazard right of the fairway, and then with a nice up and down to seal the deal — matches the low final round in Senior PGA Championship history.

Alker leads the Charles Schwab Cup points race, with more than $1.8 million in season earnings — more than he made in his entire career to this point. His career resume includes three wins on the PGA Tour of Australasia and four on the Korn Ferry Tour.

He now will play in the 2023 PGA Championship — it'll be his seventh major appearance, and first PGA.

"Just perseverance," Alker said. "That's all I can say. Just perseverance with a capital P."

Ames, 58, who held a two-shot lead to start the day, finished second at 13 under after a 70, his round done in by a poor tee shot at the 453-yard, par-4 14th, where his tee shot found the hazard to the right. He was able to find his ball and play it, hacking out to the fairway, but he couldn't convert the par putt. That dropped into her 13 under, just as Alker was making birdie at 15 to get to 15 under.

When Ames made bogey after missing the green at the par-3 17th and Alker made his 4-footer for par at No. 18, the tournament was officially decided.

The round running long and NBC wanting to capture the moment, Alker was presented the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy before the last group finished.

"I had a nice finish last year as well, finished eighth and was in the last group as well," said Ames, who was admittedly annoyed by the slow pace of play — Sunday's final round, with threesomes, took more than five hours. "Here I am another major, finishing second. It's a step in the right direction, moving closer to No. 1."

Langer finished in third place at 10 under, ending with a double-bogey at the par-4 18th for a final-round 71. His tee shot found the water right; he actually considered playing the ball out of the hazard, but with third place secured, he thought better of it.

Mike Weir, like Langer a former Masters champion, tied for fourth after a 72. Weir started the day two back with Langer, but quickly built himself a hole with bogeys on Nos. 2 and 3. Also fourth were Paul Goydos (71), Miguel Angel Jimenez (69) and KJ Choi, who shot up the leaderboard with a 65, which was second only to Alker on a day where scoring was tougher with some stiff wind gusts.

Montgomerie (68), who won the Senior PGA here in 2014, and Brandt Jobe (69), father of Tigers pitching prospect Jackson Jobe, were among a group of players at 8 under, tied for eighth. Defending champion Alex  Cejka (he won at Southern Hills) finished 13th at 6 under, after a final-round 72. Ernie Els (71) and Darren Clarke (68) headlined a group at 6 under, tied for 14th.

Tracy Phillips, from Oklahoma, was the low club pro, at 5 under. Of the 39 club pros in the field, seven made the cut, and Phillips was the only one to finish under par. He finished tied for 17th.

The Senior PGA Championship returns to Benton Harbor in 2024.

Alker will be there, no introductions necessary.

"It's like just a whole new chapter in my career, a new atmosphere," Alker said. "It's just so much fun. The guys have been so welcoming out there, and I hope they will stay that way."

Senior PGA winners at Harbor Shores

2022: Steven Alker, -16

2020: Canceled by COVID-19

2018: Paul Broadhurst, -19

2016: Rocco Mediate, -19

2014: Colin Montgomerie, -13

2012: Roger Chapman, -13

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984