A decade ago, Stephen Behr was part of the vaunted high school class of 2011 that produced Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger and several others who have had success in professional golf.
Behr never tried to put his name on that list, even if the stats suggest he had as good a chance as anyone.
Coming out of Florence, South Carolina, as the second-best junior in the state and among the top 20 in the country, Behr starred at Clemson where he led the Tigers in stroke average three of the four years he played. The only other Clemson player in the past 30 years to lead the team in stroke average their freshman and sophomore years was Kyle Stanley, who has since won twice on the PGA Tour. In Behr’s senior year he was All-ACC and an All-American, earning the Byron Nelson Award for being the top college senior who also excelled in the classroom and the community – he graduated with a 3.93 GPA in accounting. After listening to him talk, there is little doubt he usually finds himself as the smartest person in the room.
His intuition brought up red flags at the thought of trying to play golf for a living. Behr saw the game becoming more power-oriented, and he averaged about 270 yards off the tee. The lonely lifestyle and competitive fire that wasn’t fully there led him to eschew professional golf to be a risk analyst for Ernst & Young in Atlanta, an audit, tax and consulting firm. Eventually he became a sales support associate for the software company SAP.
“I considered turning pro, I really considered it, but I just didn’t think I had the passion for it,” Behr said. “I remember when I was 16 years old playing with Jordan (Spieth) at the Azalea Invitational. I beat him by one the first two days and he beat me by one the third day and we were paired together the last day. I shot 70 in pretty windy conditions, which I was pretty thrilled with. He shot 63 and beat me by seven.
“When I thought back to times like that, I just thought my game wasn’t going to stack up well against guys who were at that level. If my career was dependent on beating those guys day in and day out, I would have a tough job.”
“I feel like this is a win for my club and all of the members there. Anything I can do to represent the club in a good way is something I am all for.” – Stephen Behr
Behr didn’t touch a club for about five months after college so he could mentally reset after grinding on the game for most of his life. However, in December of 2016 a friend of his brought him out as a guest to the Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta and Behr fell in love with the facility, signing on to become a member himself. That renewed passion for competitive golf led him to where he is now as a 27-year-old mid-amateur with realistic aspirations of winning a U.S. Mid-Amateur or making a Walker Cup team. The first Mid-Am he was old enough for was in 2018 at Charlotte Country Club where he raced out to capture medalist honors by being the only player in the field to card two sub-70 rounds.
In 2020, Behr was among the best mid-amateurs in the country. He won the Birmingham National Invitational, finished third at the prestigious Azalea Invitational after taking a 54-hole lead over U.S. Amateur champ Tyler Strafaci, and received a sponsor’s exemption into the PGA Tour LOCALiQ Series’ Alpharetta Classic where he finished sixth against the pros. He’s also had a run of success in Georgia state competitions, finishing second at the Georgia Mid-Am and third in the Georgia Four-Ball.
He is off to a phenomenal start this year. And it’s come while getting to represent the home club that pushed him back into competitive golf. Behr won the inaugural PGA National Club Championship this past Monday, defeating a deep field of club champions across the country at Pinehurst Resort. His four-stroke victory came over 13-year-old Jack Roberts, also from Georgia, who tested Behr until late in the final nine holes.
“I feel like this is a win for my club and all of the members there,” Behr said. “Anything I can do to represent the club in a good way is something I am all for.”
It was also a victory for a great father-son relationship. Behr’s father, Steve, started as an assistant pro at Kiawah Island back when there was only one golf course, became a head pro at Wild Dunes Resort for 14 years and he has been the head pro at Florence Country Club for nearly 25 years. He was able to escape work for a few days and caddie for his son during the win at Pinehurst.
“For us to get together and have a little father-son duo, I’ll take any excuse to have my dad come up and caddie for me,” Behr said. “It doesn’t get much better than that for us.”
The other winner in the PGA National Club Championship was Katie Kirk, a 28-year-old from Davidson, North Carolina, who has authored a much different path in the game. Kirk has three older brothers who had no use for golf, but her father, Bill, introduced her to the game hoping she would finally be the one to enjoy it. She became enamored with the individual competitive nature of it in high school, going on to play for East Carolina University. Coincidentally, Kirk won the Dinah Shore Trophy her senior year of college, the women’s equivalent of the Byron Nelson Award that Behr won. She graduated with a Master of Science in economics and Master of Arts in mathematics with a 3.99 GPA – another highly intelligent person who can speak eloquently on many more subjects than golf.
Unlike Behr, who never bothered with pro golf, Kirk submitted her application for Q-School between her junior and senior years at ECU, one day before a qualifier for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur. She successfully qualified and decided to withdraw from Q-School to protect her spot in the tournament.
Kirk figured she had plenty of time for professional golf, but less than a year later she discovered a torn labrum in her left hip. The more she practiced, the worse it got. Long plane rides could also be agony with stiffness increasing the pain.
“If I really wanted to play at that level, I would have needed to have surgery,” Kirk said. “The timing wouldn’t have been right to go to Q-School that year, so I took that year off as well just playing amateur events.”
Kirk is a close friend of LPGA Tour player Katherine Perry-Hamski, and Kirk watched Perry-Hamski wrestle with efforts to make it at the highest level. Perry-Hamski has registered two career top-10s, but has otherwise had difficulty gaining traction.
“She’s an incredible player and to see her struggle with it, that was eye-opening to me,” said Kirk, who is now an analyst for Truist Bank. “It made me rethink what I wanted to do. Ultimately the more time that went by, it made my choice easier to stick with amateur golf.”
Kirk, who plays out of TPC Piper Glen in Charlotte, has managed her injury by playing in a handful of competitive events each year, including the 2018 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, where she reached match play. She won the Carolinas Women’s Amateur in 2014 and 2015, which she calls the best victories of her career, but winning the Club Championship title this year ranks not too far behind. She had a massive lead after shooting a 74 in the first round at Pinehurst No. 2 and closed it out with an 11-over 227 score over three rounds to defeat Allison Cooper-Wix by five strokes.
“With this being the inaugural event, it’s a cool history-book type of moment,” Kirk said. “I would love to play again, especially if it’s at Pinehurst because it’s a place I love so much.”
For Behr and Kirk, this may not be the highest level of golf but they have smartly figured out that forcing themselves into the pro game probably would have hurt more than anything else. When you have opportunities that exist like this in the amateur realm, you can still feed the competitive hunger while not enduring some of the more painful elements of trying to earn a paycheck on the course.
There are far worse lives to live in golf.
Top: Stephen Behr represented the Golf Club of Georgia in the PGA National Club Championship. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA
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