The Hyundai Tournament of Champions is supposed to be a mellow working vacation, but apparently nobody told Jimmy Walker. While his colleagues were deep-sea fishing and snorkeling, he was grinding on the range. Let others tweet pictures from their whale-watching excursions -- Walker was too busy texting videos of his action to his swing coach, Butch Harmon. The only time he hit the beach was during the photo shoot for this story. It's not that Walker, who turns 35 on Jan. 16, didn't appreciate his first trip to paradise. Quite the opposite; he took the tournament so seriously because it meant so much for him to have finally arrived. "After I won" -- the Frys.com Championship in October, his first PGA Tour victory after 187 starts -- "one of my first thoughts was that I was finally going to Kapalua. I had watched it on TV forever, thinking about how much I wanted to win so I could earn my spot. It's a special deal. You know what it takes: You have to win. It's pure. There's no b.s. Heck, yeah, it's a cool feeling to be here."
Walker was mulling this over last Friday night at the Ritz-Carlton bar, nursing a Longboard beer. He was still a bit sullen from his first-round, even-par 73 earlier in the day. Elevated expectations are a new burden. Walker had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing 30th on the money list ($2.18 million). After the blink-and-you-miss-it off-season, the Fry's was the first tournament on the rejiggered 2014 schedule. Walker went 62--66 on the weekend in San Martin, Calif., to 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 better. "That whole Sunday, I never felt nervous," he says of his two-shot victory. "I was comfortable being in that position. It just felt like it was my time."
He followed with strong showings in Las Vegas (12th) and Malaysia (sixth), becoming the poster boy for the brave new world of the wraparound schedule. In less than a month Walker hauled in $1.3 million and enough FedEx Cup points to sit atop the standings as he headed to Maui. It was during practice rounds at the Plantation course when it finally hit him that he is now keeping pretty elite company. "You're out there on the course and you don't see anybody -- it's deserted," Walker says. "It takes a little while to realize that's because so few guys are here."
Among the missing were three players in the top 10 of the World Ranking who failed to win a PGA Tour event in 2013 ... or one of the first six events on the 2014 schedule: Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker and Sergio García. Other bold-faced names who were not worthy of a place in the field included Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel, Jim Furyk and Keegan Bradley, all of whom are in the top 20. (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson qualified for the T of C but chose to extend their off-seasons, as has been their custom.) The absence of this much star power is not great for the tournament, but it does bring to the forefront some of the Tour's emergent personalities, like Walker, who was born in Oklahoma City and played his college golf at Baylor. His long journey to Maui calls to mind Ernest Hemingway's description of how to go broke: gradually, and then suddenly.
Walker's first big score came at a Web.com event in Salt Lake City in 2004, when he met his future wife, Erin. (He also won twice that year on the Tour's developmental circuit.) "I definitely wasn't looking," he says. "I'd had a string of bad encounters [with women] on the road." Only recently had he shaken a stalker he met in Wichita, Kans.; the woman showed up uninvited at the ensuing two tournaments, calling out to Walker during his rounds. Erin was from the area and attending her first event, working as a volunteer. They were introduced by a mutual friend and spent half an hour flirting on the practice putting green. She told Jimmy that another player had handed her a golf ball on which he had written, CAN I HAVE A DATE? Never mind that this would-be Casanova was twice her age and married. As they were saying goodbye, Jimmy signed a golf ball for her as a joke. "I'm not going to write a cheesy pickup line on the ball," he told her.
"It'd be O.K. if you did," Erin replied.
Says Jimmy now, "I thought, Oh, O.K.!"
They had dinner the next night, but Jimmy didn't get even a courtesy peck on the cheek at the end of the date. After two weeks of burning up the phone lines, the couple reconnected at a tournament in Oregon and the romance commenced. One problem: Erin was still casually dating Ted Ligety, the future Olympic gold medalist in Alpine skiing. (Erin was a Junior Olympic skier whose career was derailed when she dislocated her hip during her junior year in high school.) "But he had gone to New Zealand for a month, and I had no way of getting ahold of him," she says with a laugh. "When Ted came back, I was like, I kind of met someone."
The Walkers were engaged four months after they met, and they married in September 2005 at the end of Jimmy's rookie year on Tour, which was cut short by a bulging disk in his neck. After a return to the Buy.com circuit in 2007, he stuck for good on the big Tour, though he would have surgery on his left knee in 2010 and on the other in '11. (Walker blames bad genes for his balky joints.) The difficult recoveries became part of the narrative of a cut-making machine who made a good living but was not quite good enough to win. Wild driving was Walker's biggest weakness, but he prefers to see the silver lining: "I'm really good out of the rough because I have so much practice at it. I don't get bent out of shape missing fairways anymore. I can spin the ball, cut it, work it...."