Texas Tough Walker Has His Major, Now Comes a Bigger Ryder Cup Role
Tall and gaunt, with a scraggly red beard and a leisurely amble, Jimmy Walker projects a different vibe from the average Tour player. Coming down the final holes of the 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, Walker sported a squint that was even steelier than usual, leaving one colleague to compare him not with Jack Nicklaus but a more badass American icon.
"He looks like friggin' Clint Eastwood out there!" said Paul Casey. "He just needs a black Stetson and a poncho to complete the look."
Walker, who lives on a nine-acre ranch outside San Antonio, found himself in a Sunday shootout with world No. 1 Jason Day and Henrik Stenson, the hottest player on the planet. He took both down with a cold-blooded display of clutch golf. After nine consecutive pars, Walker jarred a bunker shot for a birdie on the 10th hole. Moments later Day shook Baltusrol with a long birdie putt on 11. Utterly unperturbed, Walker answered with a 30-footer of his own, and he looked so cocksure, you half-expected him to blow smoke off his putter. "He kind of walks like a cowboy, very confident in what he's doing," says Jordan Spieth, who finished 13th. "He has a presence."
Walker made a textbook birdie on the par-5 17th to extend his lead to three strokes, but on cue, Day produced an electrifying eagle on the par-5 72nd hole to trim the deficit to a lone stroke. Walker, 37, hadn't made a bogey going back to the 8th hole of the rain- delayed morning third round, and he wasn't about to start now. Grinding out a gutsy par after an errant second shot, he completed a wire-to-wire victory and joined Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Mickey Wright, among others, in the pantheon of major championship winners at Baltusrol, in Springfield, N.J. "It's cool that [Day] did what he did to make me do what I had to do," said Walker. "It was great TV. I'm sure the PGA liked it. I'm sure everybody did."
Walker's ascent to world-class player was both long and anguished and suddenly swift. His first big score came at a Nationwide tour event near Salt Lake City in 2004, when he met his future wife, Erin. (He also won twice that year on the Tour's developmental circuit, now the Web.com.) They were introduced by a mutual friend, and as a lark he wrote on a golf ball, CAN I HAVE A DATE? Jimmy was surprised when Erin said yes. They were engaged four months later, and she became a fierce advocate for her hubby as he battled injuries and self- doubt. In '12, Walker was still winless on the PGA Tour, so he cold-called Butch Harmon, swing guru to the stars. When Harmon failed to respond, Erin dashed off a pithy text message: "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." She adds, "He got back to me, like, five minutes later. He said, ‘Sorry, I've been busy.'"
A dedicated oenophile, Jimmy cemented the relationship by sending Harmon a bottle of 2000 Chateau Margaux, a Bordeaux that goes for up to $1,200. Under Harmon's tutelage Walker fine-tuned one of the prettiest swings in the game, and in October 2013 he ended an 0-for-187 streak with a victory at the Frys.com Open. Four more wins followed over the next 17 months, and he had a stalwart debut at the 2014 Ryder Cup. "The logical next step was to win a major," Walker says, but he pushed so hard, he missed the cut at three of the last four.
A month ago he began working with Julie Elion, Mickelson's former sports psychologist. (Jimmy and Phil are frequent practice-round foils.) At Baltusrol part of the plan was for Walker to carry himself with more cowboy swagger. When a reporter noted during the champion's press conference that he had seemed surprisingly calm during the tense finish, Walker said, "That's huge, because that's what I was going for."
A Baylor alum who moved from Oklahoma to New Braunfels, Texas, as a youngster, Walker fails as a true Texan only in that he's not really into horses. But Erin makes up for it—she keeps four and is a nationally ranked show jumper. (Jimmy gets his kicks by roaring around in a McLaren, and he's an accomplished astrophotographer.) On Sunday night Walker did call Rickie Fowler "podner," a reference to their four matches together at the Ryder Cup. If the U.S. this fall is going to win the Cup for only the second time this century, the late-blooming Walker will have to play a key role. Fowler and Spieth have had indifferent 2016 campaigns, and at 46, Mickelson will soon be riding into the sunset. Walker displayed a flair for team-building at the 2015 Presidents Cup, giving his teammates REAGAN-BUSH 1984 T-shirts. (Zach Johnson still proudly dons his.)
As golf speeds into a post-Tiger era of parity, Walker became the fourth first- time major championship winner in 2016. "I'll bet you anything, he won't be a one- and-done," says Casey. "Jimmy has too much game, too much grit. He's a classic Texas character. If this were the old days, he's the kind of guy you wouldn't want to get into a gunfight with."