Kiwi golfer Steven Alker is one of New Zealand's sports most unlikely redemption stories.
It has taken him nearly 20 years to become an overnight sensation in America, where a tournament victory in Florida has confirmed him as the rising star of the senior (over 50) tour.
A career which was stumbling around in relative obscurity has hit remarkable headlines and paydays since he snuck onto the Champions tour just a couple of months ago.
Alker and wife Tanya moved to the States almost 20 years ago to pursue the dream of making it on the glamour PGA tour.
Alker enjoyed three PGA seasons but has spent most of the time battling on the second tier Korn Ferry Tour where four victories were mixed with a lot of missed cuts and tough times.
It was often a financial struggle for the Alkers, who have two teenaged kids.
Hey presto, on turning 50 in late July his clubs turned into magic wands. After qualifying his way into a PGA Tour Champions event, Alker was suddenly a new man.
Headlines like 'Cinderella story' and 'Life Begins at 50' accompanied a run of top finishes as Alker rubbed shoulders and shared the limelight with legends such as Bernhard Langer and Phil Mickelson.
Alker, who barely cracked the $100,000 mark during his last Korn Ferry Tour season, has already scored over $1.2m from nine events on the Champions tour.
His TimberTech tournament win over the weekend scored him a career best payday of $430,000. Even more importantly, it guaranteed him full status on next year's Champions tour.
The money might be important, but it's the quest for golfing triumphs which still drives the affable Hamilton golfer on.
Alker, who lives in the little town of Fountain Hills near Phoenix, chats to the NZ Herald.
You are golf's phoenix from Phoenix…it must feel amazing to make a few headlines?
Yes, I've felt that a little bit. People have been coming up and saying 'well done'. Players are noticing. It's been fun out there, with a more relaxed atmosphere. I'm a bigger fish in a smaller pond compared to where I've come from.
How tough did it get over the years?
Financially pretty tough. The Korn Ferry is pretty hard…unless you are having a top 25 season you are not really making any money. Often we just got by, slogging away.
There were times when I thought I might have to get a proper job. But I've always been passionate about golf and dedicated so there wasn't a time when I'd had a gutsful. The funny thing is, a change of focus, get your attitude right, and things can change pretty quickly in this game. Same with any other sport, and anything in life I think.
Did you have your sights set on the Champions tour?
It's been a year in the making - my wife and I started talking about it just before Covid came in. It's kept me motivated and my game in shape. I wasn't a walk-on for the Champions Tour but I felt confident my game would be up to it.
Sum up your career before these amazing few months.
I definitely, probably, underachieved. I won tournaments, sure, but didn't carve out a career on the PGA tour, which is why I came over here to play. Disappointing.
I won on the Korn Ferry Tour and kept the status, played in Europe, got close to winning a couple of times there.
But I would like to have played at a higher level for longer. This feels like another chapter, another chance to redeem myself, or have a good career for another ten years.
A recent headline about you reckoned life begins at 50…
Padraig Harrington talked recently about what makes certain guys tick in different environments. I'm now playing with guys my own age, hitting it the same distance as me. I feel more comfortable, and that changes things a bit.
What's it like being on leaderboards and in fields packed with names like Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen…even Phil Mickelson?
Being amongst that company is fantastic, guys I watched a lot on TV years ago. And I've already learnt a lot just playing with them. Obviously most don't hit it as far as they used to…just watching the way they play the game, their mannerisms. I don't want to be out there as an observer, but I've got a lot of help from them, even older guys like Tom Lehman. I've played with Larry Mize a couple of times, a Masters winner, and had a practice round with Bernhard Langer. Everyone is very welcoming.
And what have they told you?
I love Larry Mize's tempo…I asked him if he used more of a hit or a stroke with putting. He said a combination, that he likes to feel a bit of a hit which goes against what people say you should do. That was really cool, because it is what I had been working on.
Bernhard Langer told me he'd learnt over the years not to practice so much, manage the time better. There's a bit of a pattern with these guys - they work on their bodies more than they work on the range.
I've been picking (Kiwi golf legend) Bob Charles' brain for three or four months and he's given me great insights in preparing for the Champions Tour.
His biography is also an amazing read. Bob was conservative in his long game to mid irons, and quite aggressive with his short irons. If it's a four or five iron, take the middle of the green. Sometimes I have tended to be a bit too aggressive. I'd definitely credit him for what has happened with me.
You weren't a long hitter - did that work against you as the game became power driven?
A little bit I think but it's a whole combination. If you have a well-rounded game you can play anywhere. With the equipment and training, I'm hitting as far as I ever have and am long enough for the Champions Tour. The big difference is the rough isn't so long, but I always hit a lot of fairways and greens anyway.
Do you have a regular caddie?
I've had a guy named Sam Workman from South Texas on the Korn Ferry Tour for three years. He's been through some tough times with me and he's been a trooper. He's done the hard yards and certainly earned the prize money we're winning. We both said let's get ready for the Champions, give it a run. His insight and experience is part of that. It is a whole Team Alker effort.
Did you have a golf hero?
I loved the way Seve Ballesteros played. I watched him on tour - he was passionate, had a great short game, went for broke at times. Nobody had Seve's game or imagination but I learnt a lot from him. You've got to have imagination in golf, no matter what type of player you are.
Any advice for budding golf professionals?
Be yourself - golf is such an individual sport.
Nothing beats hard work and pure dedication. You've got to make up your mind: Go or no.
Then get strong and hit it hard. Work on the short game of course, but golf coaches are starting to teach kids as young as five to whack the ball as far as they can. Work on the technique and grip later.
And I'd say do the small things well - even things like asking the green keeper or in the pro shop about the course.
I had a practice round with Bernhard Langer at Pebble Beach on a course he had hadn't seen for 20 years. He could have scooted around on a cart, but he had a full five-and-a-half hour practice round, with caddy and yardage book. I don't think anybody could be as meticulous as Bernard at the age of 64 though.
Is there anything you would change in golf?
I'd hate to be the boss of the PGA, USGA or RNA with the equipment debacle. The ball is the biggest thing - it goes straight, longer, it's hard to shape, it goes through the wind better.
I've spoken to older players like Hale Irwin and Tom Lehman about it. Why not wind the ball back a bit, by five or seven percent. Then again, will that hurt the shorter players because the courses might stay the same length?
In terms of a rule…Jack Nicklaus has talked for years about being able to drop out of fairway divots.
It cost me a shot in North Carolina this year - a beautiful drive, 295 metres down the middle, and I end up in a foot long divot filled with sand. There's nothing worse and it can be soul destroying for amateurs.
How has the pandemic affected golf and what is the state of the sport?
Numbers in the States have gone up…it is something people could do during the pandemic. I would like to see more public golf courses, better accessibility for the public, and more par three courses, where people can pay $10 or $15 a round.
What do you miss about New Zealand life?
Catching up with people, and some of the food…good old meat pies. I eat as many as I can when I'm back. I'm quite partial to steak and mushroom, and mince and cheese is hard to beat. You can't get them here - it's all chicken pot pies which aren't the same. You have to look out for French places to get decent pastry.
I follow all the Kiwi golfers - Lydia (Ko), Foxy (Ryan Fox) etc. - and keep an eye on the New Zealand circuits and the younger players like Daniel Hillier. I like going back to get a feel for their games.
Tanya is English and she really misses the English culture, the history, and so do I. But we've always said home is wherever we are.
Are there any other Kiwis on the senior tour?
I know Michael Campbell is playing some senior events in Europe and I think he's doing okay. I haven't spoken to him in a while. I think he tried here last year. It would be great to have another Kiwi out there.
Your career goals?
I was going to reassess them at the end of the year - I wasn't expecting to be in this position.
In the big picture - keep playing, stay healthy, and winning on the Champions tour.
I've always loved playing in the UK and have a great love for links golf.
I played in a few British Opens and winning a British senior would be pretty cool, especially as Tanya is English.
This is a new chapter, a chance to make some dollars which is great, but that is ultimately not what it's all about.
I want to make some new friends and get some wins under the belt in a new environment.