Updated at: 03/18/2013 5:09 AM
By DOUG FERGUSON
(AP) PALM HARBOR, Fla. - Kevin Streelman was ready to abandon his hopes of playing on the PGA Tour, and even that didn’t go right.
After two years of plodding through the mini-tours, he noticed a job opening as the assistant golf coach at Duke, his alma mater. Streelman was one of two finalists for the position, and he even went to North Carolina to interview.
It went to the other guy.
And that’s when his fortunes started to change, thanks to a chance meeting 10 years ago with a Masters champion.
"I remember I got told Friday I didn’t get the job," Streelman said. "My dad gave me $400 to play the qualifier for the Western Open, I made a long putt on the last hole to get in and on the next day I’m in the locker room. And Mike Weir’s locker is next to mine."
He nervously asked Weir if they could play a practice round together. Weir showed him how to use the yardage book and all the other nuances of playing on the PGA Tour. Streelman missed the cut, but saw enough out of Weir to figure out where he needed to get better, and to realize his game really wasn’t as far off as he imagined.
"It really gave me that kick in the butt to say, `If you’re going to do this, you need to get serious about it,’" Streelman said.
That was but one stop on his long, arduous and amazing journey that culminated Sunday afternoon in the Tampa Bay Championship.
In his sixth year on the PGA Tour, and his 153rd tournament, Streelman broke through with a performance that made it look as though he had done this many times before.
On the tough Copperhead course at Innisbrook, he didn’t make a bogey over the final 37 holes. With the tournament up for grabs _ Boo Weekley had a tournament-best 63 and was in the clubhouse at 8-under par _ Streelman didn’t miss a shot over the last 11 holes.
The defining moment came at the par-3 13th, which played as the toughest hole in the final round, yielding only three birdies to the previous 75 players. It’s the kind of shot Streelman had practiced for so many hours on the range, and the numbers were right.
He had 187 yards to clear the bunker and 194 yards to the pin. His 5-iron goes 200 yards, and there was a slight breeze in his face. A cut 5-iron would be ideal, assuming he could hit it properly.
"We worked really hard on that shot, with the idea and vision of being able to pull it off on Sunday," Streelman said. "I can sit there all day and do it on Tuesday and Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean much if you can’t do it on Sunday. So that’s where I was aiming."
The ball settled 6 feet away, the closest of anyone in the final round.
Justin Leonard, who battled for so much of Sunday with Streelman, made a bogey and never caught back up.
Weekley, who teed off three hours before the leaders, finally headed back to the range when Streelman played his final few holes, but that’s as far as he got. Streelman followed with three more pars, and then made a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th that allowed him a stress-free walk up the 18th hole.
He closed with a 4-under 67 for a two-shot win.
Cameron Tringale had a 66 to finish alone in third when Leonard three-putted the last hole and had to settle for a 71, putting him in a tie for fourth with defending champion Luke Donald and Greg Chalmers.
Streelman finished on 10-under 274, and the win sends him to the Masters for the second time.
This one is different.
The only other time he played at Augusta National was through the back door. He tied for third in a FedEx Cup playoff event, which assured him a spot in the Tour Championship, and everyone who reaches the final playoff event gets in the Masters.
"Everyone knows when you win a PGA Tour event, you get to go to the Masters," Streelman said. "So to do that on my own is very special."
There was a lot to be thankful for when Streelman finally took a breath and looked back at how far he had come to reach this moment. There was the year on a mini-tour in Arizona in which he doesn’t recall making a cut and wound up losing all his money. He had sponsors from Chicago who abandoned him in 2004, leaving Streelman with $400 in his pocket. He had just qualified for the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and that wouldn’t have come close to covering expenses.
Streelman got more help from a sponsor in southern California to keep the dream alive, but don’t get the idea he was looking for handouts. He cleaned clubs during the week at Phoenix-area golf courses, and worked as a caddie on the weekend at Whisper Rock. Success finally came his way on the mini-tours, and he made it through Q-school in 2007.
A year later, Whisper Rock owner Greg Tryhus invited the former caddie to join as a member, and Streelman won the club championship the next year.
"Went from caddie to club champion at Whisper Rock, which is a pretty cool story," he said.
That was the last tournament he had won _ until Sunday.
The other big winner was Jordan Spieth, the 19-year-old from Texas who holed a 50-foot chip for birdie on the 17th hole and made a 7-foot par putt on the final hole for a 70 to tie for seventh.
That gave him enough money to earn special temporary membership on the PGA Tour for the rest of the year, meaning he can take unlimited sponsor exemptions.
Until making that chip, Spieth was projected to be $195 short of the temporary membership, which is based on earning the equivalent of 150th on the money list last year.
"That would have been brutal," he said with a grin. "But it’s nice to get the crowd excited on 17. That was one of the coolest shots I’ve ever hit. That was as loud as it gets. Hair on the back of your neck stands up. But yeah, if I was $200, short, I would have just asked if I could pay them $200."
He now has earned $521,893 in three starts, the bulk of that coming from a runner-up finish in the Puerto Rico Open last week.
Weir, meanwhile, missed the cut at Innisbrook. It’s too bad he couldn’t have been around for the last day, even if he might not be aware what kind of impact he made on the fledgling career of a 24-year-old kid who wasn’t sure he had the game.
"I played with him at the Canadian Open a few years ago and told him that story," Streelman said. "I go, `I know you don’t remember this, but it meant a lot to me the way you treated me.’"
It went a long way.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)