By Garrett Johnston
THE VALLEY CHRONICLE
Special to THE VALLEY CHRONICLE
On the merits of his first win on the PGA Tour at last year’s Valero Texas Open, the amiable Steele will have the privilege to tee it up with the game’s best at perhaps America’s most storied golf course.
For Steele, who has been a professional golfer since 2005, this is a dream come true.
“The Masters is such a special place,” said Steele in February during the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing. “The first thing I thought of after I won (Valero) was getting to play Augusta.”
It would have been the first thought on many a golfer’s mind.
The Masters is a very exclusive and extremely difficult tournament to qualify for, even for PGA Tour players. The most common means of doing so is being ranked in the top 50 in the official world golf rankings, or (in Steele’s case) winning a PGA Tour event.
What is so impressive about Steele’s win at Valero is that it was the first tournament after the Masters on the schedule last year. Thus he was the first player to add his name to this year’s Masters field with the victory. Now that’s the way to quickly reach a goal.
To many golf fans, Augusta is the mecca of golf. The place that offers serenity and peacefulness in a game filled with pressure and frustration.
Even though he’s been qualified for this years’ Masters since last April 17, the circumstance is still very surreal to the lengthy Idyllwild native.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Steele said. “I think it’s going to take me walking in there (Augusta) for it to be where (I) really think that they’re going to let (me) tee it up.”
This year is setting up to be a captivating one as some of golf ’s top players are peaking just in time for Augusta. Steele seems to think that 2012 will be a year that sees the heavyweights dominate the landscape once again.
“It’s a very exciting year for golf in general,” Steele said of this 2012 season. “Tiger (Woods) is obviously playing really well. Rory (McIlroy) is just an amazing talent. Luke Donald has dominated on both Tours last year.”
Even with those major players in the mix, Steele still warns that the young Americans have a chance to grab some of the glory.
“You got the young guys like Keegan (Bradley) and guys over here that just kinda splashed onto the scene last year. So I think it’s an interesting mix of guys.”
Steele may want to remember that he is part of that particular grouping that jumped on golf ’s radar as well. At age 28, he turns 29 in April, Steele was one of six rookies on the PGA Tour to gather their first win.
He also captured an unofficial team win at the Shark Shootout last December with Keegan Bradley, one of his good friends on Tour.
With a career changing win and a “silly season” team triumph under his belt last year, Steele is looking to realize some tangible goals for his 2012 as well.
Although playing better is a hard effort to quantify, Steele believes that there are practical ways of getting to the next level.
“I definitely want to get myself into contention as much as possible and just build on what I learned last year,” Steele said. “And really try to see if I can pull off another win, which would be fantastic.”
Getting into contention and winning are going to be daunting tasks considering the evolving depth of the competition, but Steele knows the odds on such undertakings.
“That’s not always under your control,” he said. “You can play to the best of your abilities, and somebody plays better, and that’s just the way it is. If you can get yourself into contention enough, then one of the days is going to turn out well for you. So I think that’s the goal.”
Soboba Springs Country Club is a place that is very special to Steele.
Growing up and attending Hemet High School, Steele and his classmates played at Soboba Springs as their home course during the golf season.
Soboba Springs has been hosting the Nationwide Tour’s Soboba Classic the last four years and Steele was happy to be a part of it for the first two.
“That’s where I really learned how to play,” Steele said. “It was a lot of fun for me to play (the Tourney) the first two (years), it brought back a lot of good memories.”
Memories like when he played his way onto the high school team by tying Mike Cussota, the Hemet Bulldogs golf stud at the time, for number one honors while qualifying for the High School team. Steele and Cussota have become good friends since and used to always anchor Hemet’s team by playing together in the last grouping during competition.
“That was a cool thing for me,” Steele reminisced. “I remember being so excited just to make the team. To qualify tied number one was pretty awesome.”
As Steele has progressed onward to the PGA Tour, he feels fortunate to play some of the best golf courses in the world.
However, there is a particular California gem that he points to as his favorite at the moment.
“Pebble is my favorite golf course in the world,” Steele said. “It’s a little cliché to say that, but it’s that feeling that you get when you’re out there. I’ve always played it well, I love how it sets up.”
As he heads to Augusta to begin the year’s first major championship, Steele is certainly looking forward to what this young PGA Tour season has in store.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun, the majors especially,” said Steele. “It’s going to be really exciting.”