November 8, 2009

Smile For The Camera

In clinching the inaugural Kodak Challenge, Kevin Streelman is $1 million richer

Kevin Streelman (right) and caddie Michael Collins were able to savor winning the Kodak Challenge together.

Kevin Streelman (right) and caddie Michael Collins were able to savor winning the Kodak Challenge together.

There was all the drama of any cash grab as Kevin Streelman approached the 17th hole on the Magnolia Course on Friday at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Streelman was playing the proverbial tournament within a tournament, his final hole as leader of the Kodak Challenge, with a $1 million payday going to the winner.

And in this world of corporate shrinkage hurting professional golf, there was nothing wrong with this picture. Streelman clicked off a pitching wedge from 117 yards, sunk a three-footer for birdie and had his Kodak moment.

"In a lot of ways, it hasn't sunk in yet," Streelman said a day later.

Streelman's birdie brought to an end a creative brainstorm by Kodak, sold to the PGA Tour, and advertised most of the season while corporate sponsors like Buick and Verizon dropped out of golf and Northern Trust took political heat from Washington for throwing a pro-am party.

With the economy tanking, Kodak opened its advertising budget at the start of the 2009 season not only in the purse for the Challenge, but in promotion of its concept. And the concept -- while slow in interest -- was a point-and-shoot business success story for everybody involved: It allowed Kodak to feature its brand, the PGA Tour to showcase its most picturesque holes, and some tour pros to vie for $1 million in a friendly winner-take-all competition.

"It was win-win for everybody," Streelman said. "Kodak had a great idea and got a lot of great publicity out of it. The tour embraced it and the players had a blast with it. We had a nice fight for the cash."

The winner would post the lowest aggregate for the season on 30 designated holes starting with the par-5 18th at Kapalua, with a minimum of 18 holes played to qualify. Streelman had a two-stroke cushion over Bo Van Pelt, Nathan Green and J.J. Henry, a margin protected by the washout of the previous tournament, the Viking Classic, where a reachable par-5 18th at Annandale GC was the Kodak hole.

Knowing an eagle was unlikely on the 490-yard, par-4 17th on the Magnolia Course, Green and Henry pulled out, leaving just Van Pelt in the hunt. But Streelman took care of business by taking advantage of the conditions. With the hole playing downwind, he nearly holed his second shot.

"What was I thinking over the putt?" Streelman said. "Just hit a good putt. You can't think about the million dollars. That's not the way to perform the way you need to. Just pick a good target and fire it."

Streelman came to Orlando for the Children's Miracle Network Classic ranked 89th on the PGA Tour money list with $995,017 for the season. While players used the Fall Series to fight for their cards, Streelman kept adding tournaments to his schedule, hoping to protect his Kodak lead.

The idea of making that much bonus money at the end of a long season didn't strike Streelman as high priority when he made two birdies on the 16th hole at the TPC-Scottsdale in January, or when he pulled 3-wood and knocked his second shot onto the 18th at Pebble Beach, two-putting for birdie to make the cut.

"On the West Coast Swing, I didn't know what the Kodak Challenge was at that point," Streelman said. "Looking back on it now, it's funny the birdies you make not really thinking what was at stake at the time."

Once he got into the Fall Series, each shot on the Kodak holes took on more meaning, with Streelman making a 45-footer for birdie on the par-5 16th hole at the TPC-Summerlin in Las Vegas, or a 2 at the tough par-3 16th at Grayhawk during the Frys.com Open -- which was crucial since he missed the cut.

"If it wasn't for the Challenge, I would have stopped after Phoenix (the Frys.com)," Streelman said.

So on the Friday of the last full-field event of the season, when careers are at stake on crucial cut day at Disney, there was a celebration on the 17th green as Streelman realized what it felt like to win $1 million.

He got a high-five and a hug from Johnny Damon, the Yankee outfielder playing as an amateur. He ran along the Kodak Chalet, high-fiving everyone. He got a hug and kiss from wife Courtney, along with his parents, and her parents.

That's when Michael Collins, the caddie who moonlights as a comedian (and sometimes the other way around), came to his senses and reminded Streelman they had another hole to play.

And two more rounds after that, after a Friday night celebration hosted by Kodak at EPCOT. "I had people congratulating me, saying, "Congratulations, withdraw," but that's not how me and Kevin roll," Collins said Saturday morning on GolfWorld OnAir. "I told Kevin, 'We can still do more damage. There's more money to be won."

Streelman looked at it not only as lot of money, but also as way to get better. The Duke graduate figured if he could close this out, he could use the experience as a way of closing out a tournament.

Collins treated it as such, but instead of taking the pin flag as a customary caddie trophy, he yanked a Kodak Challenge sign out of the ground by the 17th green and carried that, along with Streelman's bag, down the 18th fairway.

"I've got two sheriffs there and it looked like they wanted to arrest me," Collins said. "I told them at least wait until I finish the next hole!"