Steve Elkington: Life often has its quirks and foibles, those Man Bites Dog moments when it seems as though all of our paths are chosen for us and the concept of control over one’s destiny is more hallucinatory than real.
TThere are instances when life presents challenges that appear as though life itself has a warped sense of humour and takes delight in throwing people and things together in a fashion that confounds logic.
How else would it be possible to explain the circumstances surrounding the professional golf career of Steve Elkington, a man who spent the majority of his time outside on golf courses whilst at the same time being tortured by allergies to grass?
Despite being poorly served by the grass that supplies his livelihood, Elkington has a fascination with plants and gardening that borders on the obsessive. He likes all kinds of plants, especially roses, and plants seem to like him in terms of growing well at least, despite forcing him to live on a daily diet of antihistamines.
Steve Elkington was born 8 December 1962. History buffs on this side of the International Date Line will immediately associate this date with the Day of Infamy that drew the United States into World War II, but Australians of the time had been anxiously scanning the water and the skies for some time in anticipation of an attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy. For Elkington, born 21 years after the fact, it would serve mainly as an excellent way for others to remember his birthday.
He was born in Inverell, NSW, but grew up in Wagga Wagga, NSW, a town on the eastern edge of the Outback some 300 kilometres west of Sydney. He was something of innovator in being one of the first Australians to play at the collegiate level in the United States. He accepted a golf scholarship in 1981 from the University of Houston. It was here that he met Jack Burke, the winner of The Masters and the PGA Championship in 1956. His winning of the Vardon Trophy in 1952 was a precursor to his mentorship that enabled Elkington to duplicate the feat in 1995.
His first PGA Tour win required five years. He won the Greater Greensboro Open 22 April 1990 when he charged out of the pack with a final round 66. Just slightly less than a year later, he took The Players Championship on 31 March 1991.
Elkington had a very productive year in 1992. He won the Infiniti Tournament of Champions first up on 12 January, defeating Brad Faxon in a one hole playoff when both players had concluded regulation play at 279. Faxon and Elkington would find themselves in another playoff that year in the Buick Open that also included Dan Forsman. Faxon was eliminated on the first playoff hole, leaving Elkington and Forsman to decide the tournament on the subsequent hole, where a par was sufficient to undo Elkington.
Steve Elkington also battled to a regulation draw in the Texas Open, which he lost to Nick Price on the second extra hole.
He would also win the 1992 Australian Open, earning him the Stonehaven Cup, along with the national prestige of winning the PGA Tour of Australasia’s principal event.
There were no PGA victories in 1993, but he nearly reprised his 1990 win in the Greater Greensboro Open, where a playoff including journeyman Rocco Mediate went to the fourth extra hole before a birdie by Mediate left Elkington to settle for second place.
The following year featured a win in the Buick Southern Open, where he left his closest pursuer five shots in his wake. He also had consistent scoring to the extent that he represented the International side in the Presidents Cup, the even-numbered-year version, to a degree, of the Ryder Cup. His other team appearances that year were the Dunhill Cup and the World Cup as Australia’s representative.
First up was a 8 January 1995 win at the Mercedes Championship, where he would dispatch Bruce Lietzke on the second playoff hole. The crowning achievement, as it is for any professional golfer, was a Major victory, his one and only, this one the PGA Championship on 13 August at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California. Elkingtons’s 17 under par 267 following a blistering 64 that brought him back from a six shot deficit following the third round earned him admission to a playoff against Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie that was decided by Elkington’s first-playoff hole birdie.
He also teamed with Mark Calcavecchia to win that year’s Franklin Templeton Shark Shootout. He won the Vardon Trophy that season, the award given yearly to the player with the lowest scoring average, beating out Greg Norman by almost a full stroke and denying the Shark his fourth Vardon Trophy.
Elkington maintained a high level of proficiency with a pair of wins in 1997, continuing his pattern of good early season play by taking the Doral-Ryder Open by a comfortable two stroke margin on 9 March, and backing that three weeks later on 30 March when he took his second Players Championship, when he experienced the distinctive pleasure of stepping onto the tee at the 72nd hole with an insurmountable lead that would finish up at seven strokes.
The Buick Challenge was his in 1998 and his second Doral-Ryder Open was notched in 1999. He fell off slightly in 2000, taking home only $232, 238 in prize money. He nearly doubled that total in 2001 before a major resurgence in 2002 saw him earning in excess of $1 million. That year also found him contending for The Open Championship that featured Elkington and countryman Stuart Appleby in a four-man playoff including Ernie Els and Thomas Levet that was eventually won by Els.
He was limited to 14 events in 2003 and 2004 was a lost season in terms of prize money, but 2004 found him banking almost $1.5 million, his top season in terms of earnings on the PGA Tour.
He would do well for the remainder of his PGA Main Tour career, playing for the last time in 2012 before shifting to the Champions Tour for players above 50 years of age in 2013. He has yet to win on that circuit and it might appear as though he has been impacted with the affliction that is not uncommon amongst older players at any level: the inability to make putts when it matters.
Elkington possesses one of the sweetest swings in the history of the game, the outcome of many hours of tutelage from Alex Mercer, the former professional at Royal Sydney.
His swing has been compared to Sam Snead, and anyone with the slightest inkling of golf knows the magnitude of that compliment.
It is interesting to speculate what Steve Elkington may have accomplished had he not been so at odds with his environment. One can only wonder what it must be like to suffer attacks to physical well-being in the process of doing one’s job, but he handled the situation with dignity and aplomb, never complaining or using his allergies as an excuse.
He will rightfully be remembered as one of Australia’s premier ambassadors of golf as he moves into the next phase of his career.