Look past the call-girl cards that litter the street like confetti at Times Square on New Years, or the erotic billboards on the sides of trucks going down the neon-lit Strip, and you’ll see Las Vegas in its grace.
You’ll see the fountains in front of the Bellagio dancing beneath the dry, Nevada sky, or the city calling your name as you look at it atop the Stratosphere, wooing you from below into an evening that never ends, where the casinos make promises and the liquor makes you believe them.
Las Vegas, frankly, has to be the most freeing city there is. The energy provides an escape, like a tunnel, through your mountains of worries. Walk the Strip, ignore the nudity, get lost in the lights, and it all feels very divine.
Down the Strip, across the Las Vegas Freeway, towering high above the surrounding bars, clubs, and tattoo parlors, is the Casino at the Palms. There, nine years ago, PGA Tour golfer Kevin Streelman was dancing at a nightclub in the blur of the night, lights flashing, beats blaring, with an Arizona girl he met earlier that day, a girl he would end up marrying four years later.
“Of all places, we met in Las Vegas,” his wife, Courtney, laughs.
As they danced, Courtney noticed a cross hanging from Kevin’s necklace.
“What does that mean to you?” she asked, sparking their first conversation about faith. She’s been by his side ever since.
Remarkable things, like meeting your future spouse, unfold when you leave your worries behind and enter such a carefree place as Vegas. After all, there’s love in those Vegas lights, and love drowns out worry and fear.
Worry and Fear
If there’s a breeding ground for worry and fear, it’s golf. The sport almost tore Kevin and Courtney apart. It almost ruined their engagement, their future. And it almost ruined Kevin.
“There have been times when I have said that golf is not my identity, but it is” Kevin admits. “Even a few years ago, Courtney was crying at night saying, ‘Kevin, I feel like golf is more important than me at times,’ and it just hit me,” he shakes his head. “Just a constant battle.”
Golf is easy to obsess over, to worry over, to fear over, because, like a lot of things, it’s an unsolvable puzzle. It has its way of convincing you that your entire self-worth is in a score. It’s maddening. There’s no Vegas, no escape, for golf. There’s no Vegas for anything, really. Vegas is no more than an illusion, a glow in the desert with neon-flashing “ESCAPE” signs, a mirage.
There was a time when Kevin thought golf was his escape, that if only he could attain his dream of playing professionally, it would fix everything. Golf, in short, had Kevin by the throat. It defined him.
“It’s a sad place to live, especially in sport,” Kevin says, “because, at the end of the day, they see ‘Kevin Streelman’ and a number next to my name, and they think they know whether I had a good day or a bad day, and it’s tough. Money lists. World ranking lists. Trying to get to the top. And once you’re at the top, you’re trying to stay at the top. If you don’t have a fullness, a belief in something bigger than just what our ranking is in this world, it’s going to be a sad existence…”
It’s easy to understand why he is so attached to the game. Few have invested more than Kevin, and few have worked harder.
Ever since he completed his collegiate career at Duke University in 2001, Kevin took the advice of his father, who had been drafted to play Major League Baseball but couldn’t play because of the Vietnam War.
“Kev, just give it your all,” his father told him. “If you don’t take the chance, you’re gonna one day look back and wish you had.”
But you can’t help but wonder how long you’re supposed to give professional golf a chance. Two years? Three? Six? When does it become unrealistic?
Kevin spent six years playing on mini tours. Six. He lived in Chicago but more accurately lived out of his car. He burnt through three vehicles. He racked up more than 400,000 miles.
Hoping. Chasing. Working.
One day, he checked into a hotel to play at a mini tour event in Phoenix. The hotel placed a hold on his debit card, prohibiting him from withdrawing any cash from an ATM.
“It was a moment I didn’t have anything,” Kevin says. “I called the hotel and bank numerous times, and they basically released the charges a few days later. But it was like, ‘Wow, I need to get something going here.’”
Another time, he was on the west coast playing in a Monday qualifier at Pebble Beach. A group in Chicago was supposedly sponsoring him, but he ended up stranded out west with $400 to his name. He tried calling them. He left 30-plus messages. No answer. “To this day, they haven’t picked up the phone,” Kevin says.
Why he still believed in his dream in times like that, Kevin has no idea.“Sometimes you don’t realize that or see that until you’re out of it,” Kevin says. “God uses our lowest, deepest darkest moments to build us back up. It’s in those moments when we are in the most need; sometimes he gives us our space to do it on our own and rely on Him, and know we need to rely on Him.”
There was also something that kept him and Courtney pushing through the fire. Their relationship, after all, was probably just as maddening as his golf game. It was during their two years of engagement, on the brink of being married, that they almost fell apart…multiple times.
It all came down to golf. The chase consumed him. It produced worry. It produced fear. It robbed him of life.
“We didn’t really feel like a team,” Courtney says.
Courtney was slipping away. So was golf. And so was he.
During his six years playing on mini tours, several people told Kevin he should read Dr. David Cook’s book, Golf’s Sacred Journey. Whenever people told him he should read it, he kind of shrugged it off. He was too focused. Too consumed in the game.
He eventually decided to read it, and, to his surprise, identified with the main character in the book—a mini-tour golfer who put his entire self worth in his golf score. The book, really, kind of changed him and ultimately helped save his relationship with Courtney and rescue his mind.
The struggles in 2007, Courtney says—nearly calling off the engagement, nearly calling it quits altogether—made them more “purposeful,” both in their relationship with God and each other.
He committed to playing more mini tour events in Phoenix. They were able to see one another more. They even got a dog. It was 2007, actually, in the wake of reading Golf’s Sacred Journey, when he won three mini-tour events that positioned him for his first year on the PGA tour in 2008, the year they also married.
Things were finally looking up.
“It was just kind of an overwhelming sense of, like, ‘Why us?’ When the blessings came, that made faith even more important to us,” Courtney says.
People go to Vegas to let go of things, to forget about things, to, for once, not be identified by their social or economic standing. In Vegas, everyone is the same—a bunch of fun-seeking sinners with no concept of time or money or worldly identity. Everyone is there to have a good time, to escape.
God is kind of the same way. He’s really quite an escape, a tunnel through your mountains of worry. When everything in this world tries to define you—whether it’s a job description on LinkedIn, a relationship status on Facebook, or a number next to a golf score—God can give value in a world that only gives importance.
There’s a reason why Kevin has Joshua 1:9 engraved into his putter. It speaks truth into one of his biggest struggles in life, the tendency for golf to define him, to trigger fear, worry, discouragement, or an exhausting desire to control.
“Have I not commanded you?” the verse reads. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
“That’s the constant thing I’m battling and trying to get better with, to release that fear,” Kevin says. “I think that’s a beautiful place to be, to live without fear. And that’s the verse that’s written on my putter. It’s stamped into my putter, to vanish fear and doubt from your life because God is with you wherever you go. It doesn’t matter. True freedom is letting go of worldly fear.”
On the afternoon of March 17 at the 2013 Tampa Bay Championship, after six years on mini tours, after over five years on the PGA Tour, after 153 PGA Tour starts, Kevin Streelman fired a 67 (10-under overall) to win his first PGA tournament, and watched Courtney, overcome with emotion, run down the hill on No. 18 at Innisbrook and leap into his arms.
He had gone to bed with the lead the night before, coming face-to-face with the crux of his struggle as a professional golfer: If he lost the tournament, would it define him? Would the number, the ranking, the pundits the next morning, whatever it was in relation to the game of golf, define him?
“I told people that my caddy, A.J. (Montecinos) and I, reached the freedom we had on Sunday and the peace that we had by totally letting go of the result, no matter what happened,” Kevin says softly. “Let go of worldly result. Truly let it go. I’m not going to let that affect me as my being.”
“When I held that trophy and they interviewed me, I said, ‘I don’t think God has allowed me to have one of these until I knew in my life the proper placement for it.’ Now I do. And it’s just another thing to put down at His feet when the time comes.”
Remarkable things, like winning your first golf tournament, unfold when you leave your worries behind and enter such a peaceful place as God’s presence.
Kevin Streelman is overcome, identified and stamped by a perfect love—a love that drowns all of his worries and fears.
Like the neon glow of Vegas.
By Stephen Copeland
This story was published in Sports Spectrum’s May 2013 DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sport Spectrum magazine.