When the PGA Tour season resumes this week in Hawaii at the winners-only Hyundai Tournament of Champions, most observers will be watching to see whether World Nos. 1 and 2 Jordan Spieth and Jason Day can start the new year strong following breakout 2015 campaigns.
In recent years, however, no one has played the West Coast swing better than Jimmy Walker.
Walker’s career was stuck in the doldrums until he captured his Tour first win at the start of the 2013-14 wrap-around season at the Frys.com Open in California, then followed up with marquee victories at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January and the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. Walker successfully defended his Sony Open title last winter -- giving him four wins in two seasons in California and Hawaii alone.
Walker’s early dominance in the last five seasons is nearly unmatched by any other PGA Tour pro. I compared each golfer’s scoring average in January and February to their scoring average for the remaining months of the season for each of the 2011-15 seasons. Out of more than 300 golfers, Walker’s January and February play compared to his full-season play showed the second greatest positive disparity -- just behind Brian Stuard. In 102 rounds over that time period, Walker exceeded his typical level of performance by over 0.8 strokes per round -- enough to turn the 200th best golfer in the world into a Ryder Cup mainstay.
Other particularly hot starters include Branden Grace (who has benefitted from some home games to start the season on the European Tour in South Africa) and Sang-moon Bae (who will not be playing this season due to the start of his nearly two-year mandatory military service in South Korea).
On the slow-starting side of the ledger, Henrik Stenson stands out. Stenson has been one of golf’s biggest stars over the last three seasons, but his record in January and February in 52 rounds is essentially indistinguishable from an average PGA Tour cardholder -- nearly 1.4 strokes per round worse than his play for the remainder of the season.
Walker’s success on the West Coast can be attributed primarily to his putting. While Walker has been one of the Tour’s best putters in recent years -- gaining 0.42 strokes per round on the greens since 2011 -- he has been particularly locked-in on the West Coast. He has almost doubled his production on the greens, gaining 0.85 strokes per round in events played in January or February. He also seems to have solved the greens at Waialae Country Club, home of the Sony Open, gaining a ridiculous 1.44 strokes per round in his last five trips to Hawaii.
Walker’s other secret sauce might be his ability to hole putts on the bumpy poa annua greens found on courses like Torrey Pines (Farmers Insurance Open), Riviera (Northern Trust Open) and Pebble Beach (Pebble Beach Pro-Am). These greens normally baffle Tour pros; in Mark Broadie’s Every Shot Counts, he ranked the three poa annua events as having the first, sixth, and eighth most difficult greens to putt in all events from 2003 to 2011. Walker, however, has gained 1.01 strokes per round with his putter in events contested on poa annua since 2011.
Spieth and Day might be the headliners in Hawaii this week, but my eye will be on Walker.