PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Is it too soon to declare this the beginning of the Jimmy Walker era?
The sweet-swinging, late-blooming Tour vet came into the Crosby Clambake leading the PGA Tour money list while sitting atop the Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup points list, and that was *before* the grittiest performance of his upwardly mobile career.
For 63 holes, the 35-year-old Walker snuffed the life out of this tournament with an awesome display of mistake-free golf. He began the week by playing 40 straight holes without a bogey, spanning three days, three courses and a vast array of different of weather conditions. On Sunday his lead was six strokes at the turn.
Then Walker got sucked into playing prevent-defense on the back nine, and after a three-putt on 17, his lead was down to one lonely shot. But on the iconic 18th hole at Pebble Beach he made three solid swings and then, finally, he was left with a do-or-die five-footer to save par, and his reputation.
“I made probably my best stroke of the back nine,” Walker said, and the victory was his.
After going oh-fer-187 to start his career, Walker has now won three times in his last eight starts, beginning with his breakthrough in October at the Frys.com Championship that kicked off the 2013-14 season. Walker joins Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval as the only players in the 21st century to win three times in eight or fewer starts to begin a season, though he’s trying not to get swept up in things like that.
“I just go out and play golf,” Walker said following the victory. ”This is what I want to do and I’ve worked really hard to be in this position and it’s really cool.”
This latest victory was all the sweeter because he survived some vintage Crosby weather. During his third round at Monterey Peninsula Country Club there were gusts up to 30 miles per hour. Said Walker, “I watched two guys hit 3-wood into No. 9 today -- it’s a par-3 and it's 193 yards to the flag. I hit 5-wood. I came up short of the flag.”
Ordinarily he would’ve needed only a smooth 6-iron. Yet in those severe conditions Walker ground out a 67 that pushed him to a six-stroke lead and into unfamiliar territory. Asked if he’d ever had a six-shot lead, even going back to junior golf, he said,” I don't think so. Honestly. I can't think of anything. “
Sunday at Pebble Beach Golf Links was a bit milder but Walker still had to play through rain, mist, drizzle, fog and occasional gales.
“It just feels like a battle,” he said. “You're not battling really anybody else, you're not battling the field or a tournament, you're just out there trying to [survive]. The golf course is trying to beat you up.”
A misplayed wedge on the first hole ended his bogeyless streak but he got the shot right back with a two-putt birdie on the next hole. On the unforgiving eighth, Walker stuffed his approach for a crucial birdie. But when a defensive approach shot led to a bogey on the 13th hole the lead was down to two strokes over a game Dustin Johnson.
Walker held it together just well enough from there but the strain of the back nine was written on his wife Erin’s face. Standing behind the 18th green she whooped with relief when her hubby made the clinching putt. Wiping away tears, she said, “This one was waaaaay harder than the other two.”
Walker’s ascension to the hottest player in golf began in April 2013, when out of the blue he reached out to Butch Harmon. Seeking more consistency in his long game, he asked the swing-guru-to-the-stars by text message if they could meet for a range session.
“It took him three weeks for him to answer back,” Walker says. “It was a little discouraging but in fairness we’d never even talked before.”
Walker spent a day with Harmon at his swing factory in Las Vegas and they enjoyed each other’s company. In the immediate weeks afterward they kept in touch electronically, with Walker sending video of his swings and Harmon responding with his musings. “All of a sudden he went silent on me,” Walker said. “Quite a few messages went unreturned.”
Erin is a spicy personality and a fierce advocate for her husband. Fed up, she sneaked Harmon’s number out of her hubby’s phone and dashed off a text.
“Jimmy was really bummed about the whole situation so I felt I had to do something,” she said. “I wrote to Butch, ‘Look, you don’t know me, I’m Jimmy Walker’s wife. If you don’t want to work for him, just say so. We need to move on.’ He got back to me like five minutes later. He said, ‘Sorry, I’ve been busy…’”
Harmon was cowed into putting in long hours with Walker in Charlotte and the following week at the Players. In parting, Walker said, “Butch, I don’t know what your deal is with your guys, just tell me what I owe you.”
Harmon’s response: “You don’t owe me anything.”
So when Walker -- a serous oenophile -- returned home to San Antonio he dug around in his wine cellar and found the right thank-you present, which he’d been sitting on for three years: a bottle of 2000 Chateau Margaux, a much-coveted Bordeaux that sells for as much as $1,200. Little wonder that at the end of the year Harmon asked Walker if he’d like to join his stable and work together full-time.
The 2013 stats attested to their progress, as Walker married his stellar short game to a career-best 20th in driving distance (298.5 yards) and 61st in greens in regulation. When he noted his consistency to Harmon -- 10 top-25 finishes in 24 starts -- the crusty Harmon told Walker that consistency doesn’t mean squat without a victory.
At the Frys, Walker went 62-66 on the weekend to finally break through. The revelation was not that he had to do anything particularly special to win but rather do the same old stuff just a little bit better.
“That whole Sunday I never felt nervous,” he said of his first PGA Tour win. “I was comfortable being in that position. It just felt like it was my time.”
It still is. The cerebral Walker counted his Sunday struggles as a valuable lesson on how to protect a lead and vowed to put the knowledge into use next time he’s in a similar position. That might even happen this week at Riviera, his favorite golf course.
“I don’t know what’ll happen, I’m just going to go play golf,” Walker said.
Right now, that’s enough.