Former Tennis Mag, Golf Digest Photog to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award
January 19, 2023
FRISCO, Texas (Jan. 18, 2023) ー The PGA of America named Stephen Szurlej as the third recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Photojournalism. Szurlej and his outstanding career will be celebrated on May 17 during the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York.
The PGA of America established the Lifetime Achievement Award in Photojournalism to recognize the vital role that photography plays in documenting the rich history of golf and to celebrate the individuals who have promoted the game at the highest level.
“Stephen Szurlej’s extraordinary ability to capture golf’s most memorable moments, athletes and courses through imagery has made an everlasting impact on our game,” said PGA of America President John Lindert. “Stephen set the standard for golf photography through his masterful artistic ability and relentless work ethic. On behalf of the PGA of America, I congratulate Stephen for over three decades of excellence in photojournalism.”
Szurlej, 73, served as Senior Staff Photographer for Golf Digest and Tennis Magazine for nearly 30 years.
“It is quite an honor,” said Szurlej. “Never would I have thought that I would be selected for this. I am really appreciative of the PGA of America.”
Szurlej, who was born and raised in New Jersey and now splits his time between Danbury, Connecticut, and Port St. Lucie, Florida, honed his craft as a sports freelance photographer and spent five years at a weekly newspaper in Danbury. While with the newspaper, which Szurlej estimates was the second newspaper in the country to have full color, he covered New York sports teams as well as local golf and tennis events.
Szurlej joined Golf Digest in 1980 and covered golf’s biggest stars. The majority of his tournament action photography appeared in Golf Digest’s sister weekly publication, Golf World. Szurlej also shot sequences and other instruction focused content for Golf Digest. It was at those one-on-one sessions where he built relationships with players.
During this time, he also worked for Tennis Magazine as both publications were under the same ownership. He shot 15 consecutive U.S. Opens for Tennis Magazine from 1981 to 1995.
For Szurlej, it’s difficult to single out his favorite images from over 30 years of golf coverage. Like many photojournalists, he tends to judge himself more on the misses than the makes.
“It’s a little bit like the players,” said Szurlej. “Everyone is so good out there. It’s so hard to win week to week. The same thing is with golf photography. There are a lot of great golf and sports photographers. Getting the best picture, a winning moment is really a lot of hard work, a lot of effort and sometimes some luck too.”
One image that does stand out to Szurlej came from the final round of the 2005 Masters. After following Tiger Woods’ tee shot on the par-3 16th hole, Szurlej positioned himself on the right side of the green so Woods would be chipping in his direction.
Szurlej recognized the break of the green and estimated where Woods would need to aim his chip in order for it to have any chance of reaching the hole.
He decided to stand behind the packed gallery and shoot over the patrons’ heads. It was a gamble for Szurlej who knew that if anything dramatic happened not getting a picture was a possibility. Woods’ chip momentarily hung on the edge of the cup before falling in and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“Arms flew up in front of me as I struggled to thread the needle and keep my focus point on Tiger,” said Szurlej. “His reaction lasted just a couple of seconds, but it seemed longer. I chose the correct position, but was lucky an outstretched arm was not in my direct line of sight at the time of Tiger’s peak expression. I had several frames ruined by raised arms, but only needed one.”
Szurlej’s gamble paid off and produced one of golf’s most iconic images.
Throughout the second half of Szurlej’s tenure with Golf Digest, he started photographing golf courses throughout the United States and across the world including visits to Tasmania, Korea, Ireland, Canada, Scotland, England and Australia.
One of his favorite assignments was visiting the major championship venues a year in advance.
“I would be there completely on my own,” said Szurlej. “That magical time of day with the first light in the morning and the last light at the end of the day is when I worked.”
Szurlej’s impressive tenure with Golf Digest concluded in 2010 following 446 tournaments, 104 major championships, 15 countries visited and countless memories, many of which are centered around working closely with the world’s best golfers.
“Golfers are probably the best guys to work with in any professional sport,” said Szurlej. “They were really good to work with. I think that’s the nature of the game. It breeds a certain respect. That was a really great thing about working in golf.”
Szurlej joins past winners David Cannon (2022) and Leonard Kamsler (2020) as recipients of the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement in Photojournalism Award.