ORLANDO, Fla. — Johnny Damon swung. The ball went back, back, back and — yesss! — into the left bleachers.
“He roasted it,” said Kevin Streelman.
The famous Yankee pro was a golfing amateur in Streelman’s group Friday afternoon, and that errant approach shot at the Magnolia Course’s 17th hole helped break the tension for Streelman, who subsequently stuck a sand wedge and made a short birdie putt to win $1 million in the inaugural Kodak Challenge.
Streelman said Damon gave him an assist. “We were laughing so hard,” Streelman said. “It helped me stay loose for my shot.”
The Kodak Challenge is a season-long contest with PGA Tour players taking their best score on 18 of 30 designated holes for the year. (Actually, it was 29 holes because the Viking Classic was rained out.) Streelman had a two-shot lead coming into Disney, the last event of the year. After Damon’s Yankee-left shot, Streelman hit his approach to three-and-a-half feet, leaving himself an easy putt to clinch the million bucks.
The birdie gave Streelman a three-shot lead over Bo Van Pelt, and the 17th is a long par 4 that not even Superman could drive. So Kodak held an awards ceremony and gave Streelman a unique trophy that includes a digital photo display showing pictures of Streelman and the holes used in the Challenge.
“I just want to thank Kodak for this incredible idea,” said Streelman. “It was the talk of the Fall Series, and a lot of trash talk between the players. It got nerve-racking.”
Streelman hadn’t given much thought to the Kodak Challenge until he eagled the 17th hole at the John Deere Classic, hitting a 3-wood from 260 yards to two feet. “Probably the best shot I’ve ever hit,” he said. When he birdied the Kodak hole the following week in Milwaukee, he was tied for the Challenge lead and never lost it the rest of the season. He signed up for every Fall Series event, in fact, to try to protect his lead and chase the $1 million bonus.
While the Kodak Challenge wasn’t a hot topic in mid-summer, it did draw attention this fall. “When J.J. Henry eagled that hole at Vegas and did his camera click,” Streelman said, “I made a 40-footer the next day and came back at him with a couple of fist pumps.”
For the record, Streelman bogeyed the 18th hole and shot 71. He made the cut, though, which allowed him to reach another goal. “One of my goals was to win $1 million on tour this year, and I came here with about $995,000, so I was happy to get that one,” said Streelman.
It’s been a very good year, obviously, for Streelman, who almost quit golf four years ago because he was close to broke. He’s 31, played college golf at Duke and first drew notice when he got into the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and shared the first-round lead with Justin Hicks.
As his approach to the 17th was in the air, his caddie, Michael Collins, said he shouted their new catchphrase, “Kiss the baby! Kiss the baby!” It’s a line stolen from Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco, Collins said. They began using the phrase in Las Vegas. “When he made that 40-footer footer for eagle, his ball was still six feet from the hole and I started yelling, Kiss the baby,” said Collins, who grabbed a Kodak Challenge placard from the fencing at the 17th green for a souvenir.
“Caddies get flags when their player wins,” Collins said, holding the placard after the round while Streelman did Golf Channel interviews. “This is my flag.”