It’s been a slow and steady climb for PGA golfer Kevin Streelman. He turned pro in 2001 and didn’t win his first tournament until his breakout season in 2013 when he also finished 13th in the FedEx Cup standings. But the one thing that’s always been consistent in Streelman’s journey is his faith and that faith has driven him to live with biblical integrity on and off the golf course.
In this conversation with Managing Editor Chad Bonham, Streelman talks in-depth about the importance of integrity and what he has learned from studying the life of Christ:
Chad Bonham: Why do you love golf?
Kevin Streelman: It started for me as a family passion. Both of my parents play. It was our weekend adventure. We never joined a private club but we would travel to public courses all over Chicago, which is just a fantastic area for golf courses. We would get a twilight deal for Saturday and Sunday afternoons and then go to a quick dinner afterwards. It was just a really special family time. I played a lot of other sports growing up. I played basketball and tennis and baseball. Somehow golf just stuck with me and I felt pushed in that direction. I had good results at the right time and it’s been step-by-step ever since.
Bonham: What are some lessons that you’ve learned from the game of golf?
Streelman: The first thing that comes to mind is integrity. You have to call your own infractions and you have to live with yourself if you don’t. That to me has always been the hardest part. If you screw up, you have to try to go to bed that night.
Bonham: Can you share an example?
Streelman: I was on the mini tours and I was dead broke. I was playing well in a Gateway Tour event at Wigwam Resort in Phoenix and was tied for the lead on hole 15 or 16. I was playing great and I hit the ball into the rough. The ball was in this tall Bermuda grass and when I took the club back, the ball just fell back about a quarter of an inch. It was at the point where I couldn’t stop myself. I ended up hitting the shot within four feet of the hole and I hit the putt. But then I had to tell everyone that my ball had moved and I had to add a stroke. I ended up losing the tournament by one shot. It was an instance where I thought that was such a huge deal. The winner’s check was probably $14,000 and I probably won $7,000. In my mind, I lost about $7,000. At the same time, those guys I was playing with in that tournament still bring that up. There are situations like that where you know in your heart what’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, obviously in golf and more importantly in life, we’re so shortsighted on the immediate result and the finish that we don’t look long term and see what God has planned and what He has for our lives. Sometimes that’s us setting examples for others and that’s much more important than some silly result.
Bonham: Why does integrity matter in today’s society?
Streelman: For believers it matters intensely because we’re called to follow Christ and we’re called to represent Him in every facet of our life. He was the perfect example of integrity, of love, of passion. When we set out every day to live our lives as He did and glorify the King in all we do, then integrity just happens. When you are a believer, when you have your priorities in life lined up, situations in life come up and you first look to Him. The answers to your questions are quickly answered. Who can set a better example than a perfect, living God?
Bonham: Is it impossible to have integrity on the course but not have integrity off the course?
Streelman: I’ve played in a lot of tournaments with successful business leaders. If they’re looking at clients or they’re looking at customers or potential co-workers, they’ll golf with them and people will equate their golf game with their lives. It’s almost a mini representation of how people live their lives. We govern ourselves. We rule ourselves. The way we handle those situations on the course is a microcosm of our lives. The way people walk on the golf course is a lot of times the way they walk in life. We’re not here to judge them. We’re here to set a great example and show them lives of love and integrity and hopefully it rubs off on others.
Bonham: How does that translate to your life as someone who is often in the spotlight?
Streelman: The hard part with golf is that people look up to you when you’re on the PGA Tour and you have success. You are put in a situation where microphones are put on your all the time. There are people watching you. If you fail or get angry at a volunteer or angry at an official or a caddie, you’re really watched. If you’re not careful, you can set a bad example for the people you need to be setting the best example for. That sometimes is the hardest part. The better you do, the more watched you are, which is also a great opportunity to reflect. I still view myself as a cart kid who worked to make a couple of bucks cleaning carts and scrubbing clubs at the local clubhouse. Now I’m on my fourth year on the tour and I’m slowly getting more recognized at places like the airport. You need to do your best to set a good example. Some people struggle with that. Other people are great at that. You just have to work at it and make the best example you can.
Bonham: What does golf teach you about how to conduct yourself within the context of your private life?
Streelman: Golf has had a minor part in that but my faith has had a much stronger impact. It’s putting Christ at the forefront of my life and working on it every single day. Handing it over to Him is the utmost example of trying to live out integrity in your life. As I’ve done that, golf has become less and less important to me but the flipside of that is I’ve had more and more success. It’s funny how that works. It’s a challenge. It’s a constant. It’s one of the harder things on this earth because there are a lot of media outlets and a lot of worldly outlets that are trying to tell you otherwise. It’s something you’ve got to stick to the grindstone. We’re going to fail. We’re going to battle. We’re going to be mean to our kids and mean to our wives sometimes and we’re going to say things we shouldn’t have said, but then we learn to hold it in we learn to show more love the next time. It’s a constant battle of trying to get better at that. Golf is what I do. I don’t try to make it who I am. That’s another battle as well. That’s what everyone looks at you as. Mike Singletary once said, “I want to become such a strong believer and faithful follower of Christ that people forget that I was a football player.” That is the ultimate place to get because everyone else in the world is trying to tell you otherwise.
Bonham: Can true excellence happen without integrity?
Streelman: True heavenly excellence will not happen without integrity. Earthly excellence or results based excellence can happen, but it depends on your priorities and your intentions. Is excellence winning the Masters and making 100 million dollars and bought houses and cars and had lots of women and all that or is excellence winning the Masters and using that to change 100,000 people’s lives by telling them about Christ or inspiring kids? That could be in the eye of the beholder. You might get two different answers.”
Bonham: How does integrity impact a person’s influence and their Christian witness?
Streelman: We’re watched quite a bit when we have our uniforms on. We’re watched quite a bit on the golf course. When kids are out there and they see us speaking at a Search Ministries breakfast or at an FCA Game Day, we hope they’re not hearing us speak but that they’re hearing the Lord speak and he’s just using us His puppets, using us as His microphones to change people’s lives. That’s what we’re ultimately called to do. I couldn’t have done this three or four years ago before I truly set out to live my life as a believer should. It’s amazing when you just turn that over to Him and put Him in charge and He tells you where to go and what to say and how to act. That’s the ultimate place we need to get to.
Bonham: How does integrity impact your emotional, physical and mental health?
Streelman: It gives you peace of mind. It gives you continuity in your life. We have pitfalls and we have struggles. The more we fall back on integrity as our foundation and say, ‘I’m not going to make that same mistake tomorrow’ or ‘I’m not going to go to that place I shouldn’t have gone,’ that’s our foundation. It gives us solace and it gives us inspiration. It definitely has an impact on our mental side. After I work hard for six or seven weeks, I have to take some time off to get my mind fresh and get back to square one so next time I’m on the road I can get out and set a good example.
Bonham: Is there a particular Bible passage that inspires you in your quest for integrity?
Streelman: Tom Lehman’s life verse is Joshua 1:9 and I write that on my golf ball every round I play. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” I think about that verse daily. God doesn’t recommend we banish fear from our lives. He commands it. That really pushes me daily. What He did with Joshua at that time is inspiring. He was scared to cross but God said, “It’s time to go. I’m telling you to do this.” So many times in this life, we want to follow our own path instead of listening to what the Lord wants us to do but He promises us so much more glory and fun when we let Him take over.”
Bonham: So integrity is about understanding that it takes courage, but courage comes from God?
Streelman: You need courage to make the decisions to live a life full of integrity. There are times when it’s not viewed as the popular idea or the cool idea or the strong idea. But when we have that foundation in our lives and look to Him for the answers, the decisions become clear. We can’t see the long term plan that He has for us, but it is promised to be glorious, spectacular and magnificent in all regards. That’s promised to us. That’s how we have the courage to make the right decisions.
Bonham: What are some things you’ve learned from studying the life of Christ?
Streelman: Everything—His love, His acceptance, His brokenness, His understanding of the world and sin. As much as He despised and hated sin, he understood that we were broken and lost in sin and obviously that’s why he came to die for us. The public’s general perception of Christianity is frustrating. People say, ‘I went to church and it was really boring. I went to church and they told me to be a good person. If you do good things, you’ll earn your way into Heaven.’ It’s so against what the Gospel says. The Gospel says we are broken. We’re all screwed up. That’s why He came here to die for us. We do good things out of gratitude for what He did for us. If people could understand that and hear that and be open to the fact that we’re here to love each other and we’re not here to judge each other, people would have such a greater view of Christianity and what Jesus is here to do and be open to accepting that into their lives. That’s the beauty of the Gospel and people will want to be a part of that. They’ll want that freedom because this world just bogs us down and pulls us down.
Bonham: Who are some of the guys on the tour that inspire you in your quest for integrity?
Streelman: The first couple of guys that jump out at me are Ben Crane and Webb Simpson. Webber and I hit it off right away his rookie year on tour. I met him his rookie year and we just gravitated towards each other and have become great, great friends. His first caddie Williams quit this year because he was offered a job as a youth pastor in Savannah, Ga. It was a huge pay cut. But it was his calling. Those were two of my closest friends on tour. Ben is such a rock and such an inspiration whether you need to bounce some things off him. He’s very versed, very intelligent and very sweet. He’s just a great believer and a great person to be around.
(Photos: Chris Condron/PGA Tour, Chad Bonham, Kevin Streelman)