Jimmy Walker had no shot. That's how it appeared, at least. Two tall pine trees loomed in front of him. His stance was unsteady. His lie was awkward, surrounded by loose pebbles. His target? He couldn't even see it. Plus, it was dark. Talk about a hopeless predicament.
Suddenly, everything changed. After weighing his options, Walker improvised and used his imagination the way Phil Mickelson did in March when he got up and down for birdie from a cart path at Doral. Walker sensed an opportunity. The clouds parted. The night sky sparkled with stars. Holy s---! There it is, the Milky Way! Walker remembers thinking. The perfect shot had presented itself. He propped a single-lens reflex camera on a small rock, made an educated guess on the exposure and started shooting.
What, you thought he was playing golf? No, Walker was standing on a desolate mountainside in southern New Mexico, gazing up at the stars on a June night in 2012. He was there because Jimmy Walker, established PGA Tour player, is also Jimmy Walker, budding amateur astro-photographer. Walker makes images of objects in space. Deep space. They are mostly big targets such as nebulae, galaxies and star systems light-years away, and his work sometimes crosses the boundary into art. He's very good at what he does.
That makeshift shot he produced last summer captured a warm view of the Milky Way. The picture shows a rich star-field background and veils of white-, yellow- and orange-tinged space matter that slightly resemble flames. His low-tech approach yielded a high-quality result. It was a long shot, but he pulled it off. "The Milky Way was so bright," Walker says, "it looked like clouds in the sky that night. I was really proud of that picture."
Capturing the image required a level of expertise Walker has slowly acquired over the last three years, during which he has built an impressive portfolio of space shots. If astro-photography had world rankings, Walker would be in them. "Most guys have hobbies like playing guitar or fishing," says fellow Tour player Brendan Steele. "I guess Jimmy is joining NASA or something. He must be pretty smart because he's like, Here's my favorite galaxy photo this week. Jimmy's stuff blows my mind. The best picture I ever took is of a giraffe kissing my wife. It's on my cellphone. You want to see it?"
Walker, 34, was born in Oklahoma City, played golf at Baylor and lives in San Antonio. He won three Nationwide (now Web.com) tour events, including the 2004 Chitimacha Louisiana Open, where he birdied four of the last five holes, sinking a 30-footer on the final green for the victory.
His defining golf moment, he says, came during his senior year at Baylor in 2000, when he Monday-qualified for the Byron Nelson Championship outside Dallas. Walker was on a par-3 tee box during a practice round when a meandering Tiger Woods skipped a hole, walked over to the tee and asked if he could play through. "Dude," a starstruck Walker replied, "you can do whatever you want."
The two played the par-3 together. "I'm so nervous, I'm shaking," Walker recalls. "Every bad thought you're not supposed to have, I have them all at that moment. It's just an eight-iron shot. Well, I swing and somehow make contact. I look up and the ball is in the air, thank God."
The walk to the green seemed unusually long. Upon arrival, one golf ball was four feet from the hole, the other 15 feet. "Mine was the four-footer," Walker says, reflecting on the delicious combination of thrill and relief. "I remember thinking, I'll never be that nervous over a shot again in my life. To hit a shot that good while being that nervous—I thought, I've got this now."
Apparently, he did. From Baylor, Walker moved on to the Nationwide tour and steadily progressed to the PGA Tour, where his playing privileges were on the line at Disney in 2009 as he played the last hole of the season's last event. He had a 4½-foot putt for par. "I knew if I missed, I wouldn't keep my card," he says. "And I buried it." He finished 125th on the money list, snagging the last exempt position.
That was a turning point. Walker has won $5.4 million over the last four years. He's playing his best golf now with four top 10s in 2013, including a third at Pebble Beach and a fourth at Torrey Pines. He made 24 consecutive cuts before he missed in Memphis, and heading into last week's AT&T National, he was 71st in the World Ranking, up more than 100 spots from early 2012.
Along the way he got married. Erin Walker understands her husband's unusual hobby because she has one too—equestrian jumping. After their son, Mclain, was born in 2010, Jimmy remembered toying with a telescope as a kid and decided to get back to his stargazing roots. The idea quickly snowballed, starting with expensive equipment and then a prime location to do it. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out you can't see any stars living in the city," he says. "I studied some light-pollution maps and knew I'd have to get out of San Antonio."
He discovered Vanderpool, Texas, population 20, an hour's drive from Walker's home and on the other side of the Hill Country plateau, which effectively blocks San Antonio's light dome. He rented a cabin, and the process went like this: Drive to Vanderpool. Set up telescope and camera. Shoot frames. Go inside and warm up. Then repeat. Of course, it had to be a cloudless night, and the moon couldn't be out because its light ruins his imaging. "I shot only four or five pictures that first year," Walker says. "It wasn't great."
"The thing I like about astronomy is being outside at night and seeing the stars in a dark sky," says Walker. "It makes you feel small."
He learned on the fly, reading manuals and chatting online with noted astro-photographers. That's how he discovered New Mexico Skies, a facility at an altitude of 7,300 feet in Lincoln National Forest in Mayhill. It's a full-service operation that offers rental space for astronomers and maintains some 60 telescopes. The rent goes for $1,000 a month. "It's probably cheaper than the golf club I'm a member at," Walker says, laughing. "Plus there's no food minimum."
Walker and a friend loaded his gear into a car and drove the 580 miles to Mayhill. The folks at New Mexico Skies helped him set up and connect to a laptop, from which he typed commands that enabled him to photograph targets in the sky. "You can image almost every night because the weather is usually good," Walker says. "I've been pumping out pictures ever since."
Thanks to the computer hookup, he can practice his hobby even when he's on the road doing his day job. "I enjoy getting up in the morning and seeing what images I got during the night," Walker says. "It keeps my mind off missing my family, and it keeps my brain working. It would be easy to turn on SportsCenter and just zone out. This is just something I enjoy. I'm not really that nerdy."
Oh? Walker played with Tim Finchem at Pebble Beach last year in a First Tee outing and discussed his hobby with the PGA Tour commissioner. "Finchem thought it was incredible," Walker says. Former President George W. Bush joined the two for lunch, and Walker slid his phone to Finchem, who was floored by what he saw. "Then Finchem slides the phone over and says, 'Hey, Mr. President, look what Jimmy is doing,' " Walker says.
Walker breaks into his best Bush impersonation, squinting like Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live and affecting his down-home cadence: "That's good, that's really good." Then Bush pulled out his iPad, waved it around and asked Walker if he had that app "where you can hold it up and move it across the sky?" Walker laughed, then replied, "Yeah, Mr. President, I have that one."
Walker's most spectacular image may be one of several he has taken of Orion's Sword, which is located in the southwestern sky. In the middle is a bright red blob, like a smashed strawberry, with spreading space dust around it resembling spilled chocolate. "It has a 3-D effect, like you can almost reach through and grab it," Walker says. "I really exaggerated [the color]. The level of detail is incredible."
Walker frequently posts images on Twitter. He has a folder of more than 80 space images available for viewing at jwalk.smugmug.com/ astrophotos. He flips through the image catalog on his cellphone as easily as most people click through their list of contact numbers. "I like this one, NCG 2170," he says, holding it up to see. "I wish it had a name instead of a number, though, because it is so frickin' cool."
Walker has already documented a lot of sky. The Christmas Tree Cluster. The Cone Nebula. The Pinwheel and Whirlpool galaxies. A wide view of Horsehead Nebula with a stunning splash of red and amazing clarity.
"The Witch Head Nebula turned out really well," he says. He clicks on his phone, puzzled. "Where'd that go?" he says. He keeps clicking. "Here it is."
He has imaged the Andromeda and Sombrero galaxies, the Sagittarius Triplets and the Rosette Nebula. The list goes on.
"The thing I like about astronomy is being outside at night and seeing the stars in a dark sky," Walker says. "It's very surreal. It makes you feel small."
These days he is excited because galaxy season is in full swing. "You know that dark line you see in the sky at night? You're looking through the darkest part of the Milky Way so you can see deeper into the universe now than at any other time of the year," Walker says. "The center of the Milky Way is where all the action is now. You can squeeze 200 galaxies into one picture if you do it right."
He has new gear to break in—a $30,000 telescope and a $13,000 camera. His to-do list of targets includes Antares, a supergiant star, and M16, a diffuse emission nebula.
He's got a shot, no doubt about it.