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."