Why do we so furiously focus on the majors? Perhaps it's because to be seen as a great player—not just a good one—a pro must win at least one of the game's four most coveted titles. When Jimmy Walker hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy last July at Baltusrol, he made a case for greatness. And at 38, he's not done yet.
Walker sat down with GOLF in the living room of his rental home during the Shell Houston Open, where his housemate and good buddy Rickie Fowler was hanging out. (Let it be known that when Walker calls his Ryder Cup teammate "numbnuts," it's with big-brotherly affection.) The tall, easygoing Texan shared what he learned about himself last year at Baltusrol, what he texted runner-up Jason Day later that same night, and what it will take to win major No. 2—and declare the argument for greatness "case closed."
You had a pretty good run last year, winning the PGA Championship in July and two months later helping Team USA win the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. But you weren't exactly setting the world on fire before you got to Baltusrol.
I was just grinding, working hard. And it all came together. I played really well the week before [the PGA], and then I won at Baltusrol. Did I see that coming? Not really. But I feel like if I'm playing well and in contention, I know what to do. And it was super exciting to be on the Ryder Cup team—especially that first day, when we swept them in the morning matches, 4-0. And it was really cool to have Arnie's bag sitting there on the first tee.
Did you feel heading into Baltusrol that it would be a special week?
No. I hadn't been playing that well. I was struggling. I had started working with a new sports psychologist [Julie Elion] in Akron a few weeks before. She helped me zero in and focus on some important stuff. And I was swinging good and putting good at Baltusrol, and it just happened.
You led or co-led wire-to-wire. Did you surprise yourself?
I thought I could win. And I always felt I had the game to win a major. I thought it would've happened in the previous two years, because I was playing so well. But you just never know.
What does it say about golf that you came out of nowhere to win a major wire-to-wire?
Only a few people have made the game look easy week in and week out. We get stretches where we play really well, and then stretches where we don't. So you wait for the waves and you ride them as long as you can.
At the PGA Championship, when did you think, This is my week?
On Friday. I was playing well and swinging great. And I never had a thought that it was gonna go away. Instead, I was thinking, Man, this is it. I can win this major. It would be huge.
Do you try to shut out those thoughts, or do you let yourself go there?
I don't dwell on them, but if seeing yourself winning pops into your head, you embrace it. That's what Julie talks about. She's says to embrace those thoughts and feelings. Visualize it. See yourself winning. See yourself as a major champion. What you don't want is to see the opposite. You hate to think, I'm gonna lose this. You fight the [negative] feelings, and I was thinking, I can win. She says, "Hold onto it, soak it in, because those are great feelings. Now, when you get to your next shot, forget all that and hit the shot." But you need to embrace good thoughts when they happen.
Playing in the group ahead of you on Sunday, Jason Day made a late run. He eagled the par-5 18th hole, on the strength of his 258-yard 2-iron approach shot. His eagle cut your lead from three strokes to just one. Did you know what he was doing?
I knew he didn't birdie 17. So when I did birdie it, I thought it was over. You're not thinking he'll eagle 18. My birdie on 17 was what won the tournament. And I also had to make a short [par] putt on the last. So, two gut checks there, on 17 and 18. I was in the 18th fairway when he made the eagle putt. I'm like, "Oh man, he made it." But that didn't change what I was trying to do. I was still trying to make a par.
There was plenty of second-guessing when you went for the green in two. Did Day's eagle affect your decision?
No. If he had only made birdie, I still would've gone for it. It was a no-brainer. I had ball-in-hand [due to soggy conditions, lift, clean and place was in effect], and I could put it on a great lie. And there's no real trouble by the green. There are bunkers and rough, but no O.B., no water. Nothing dangerous. The dangerous shot, honestly, was laying up, because the 3-wood gets past a lot of trouble. My caddie [Andy Sanders] and I said, "We're goin'." I'd do it again, and I'd do it every time.
Granted, there was no O.B. or water, but you did short-side yourself, leaving your second shot in the rough behind a greenside bunker. On the CBS broadcast, Jim Nantz asked, "Why?" Did doubt ever creep in that you might let it slip away?
No, there was no doubt. I was just bummed that I short-sided myself. I knew I was in a bit of a pickle. If this was Friday and I had that chip, I'd try to get it a lot closer. [But on Sunday with the lead], it's a gutsier, tougher shot. When I hit it over there, I knew what I had to do—knock it somewhere on the green and two-putt from 30 or 40 feet. It wasn't about fear. It was about what I had to do to win. I just had to keep my composure, chip it on and two-putt to win. I tried to keep it casual. There was no sense of urgency.
Well, as casual as you can be with the Wanamaker Trophy on the line.
I had to be extra conservative. A lot was riding on the chip, and all I needed was par. But if I tried to flip it in there tight, I'd risk dumping it in the bunker. So I had to make the safe play.
When you rolled it in for the win, what emotions did you feel?
Relief that it was over, and that I did it and kept my emotions in check. I saw Andy, and it was just pure joy. And there was a little shock. A month before, mentally and physically, I wasn't in a place to pull that off. So when I won, I thought, Man, I can't believe that happened. I wasn't ready, but it happened.
The "Holy s---" factor?
Yeah! Like, "Wow, pinch me."
Day was waiting nearby, in case of a playoff. What did you say to each other afterward?
We hugged after the round on the 18th green. He said, "Good fight, good play." And I texted him later that night: "Hey man, great playing. Amazing eagle. I appreciate you doing that... thanks for the kickass fight."
You appreciated his making eagle? How so?
If Jason pars or birdies the last hole, I can stroll down 18 [and win]. But I wouldn't have learned anything about myself, you know? With him pushing me, I learned that I could birdie 17, like I did. And I learned I could make that putt to win [on 18] that I've practiced my whole life. So I thanked him, because he made me better.
What else did you learn that day?
That I can keep it together and not make a bogey in the final round of a major and keep my head in the game. Learning that is fuel for the fire down the road.
How did you celebrate that night?
My whole team, squad, friends were waiting near the green. Numbnuts here [Fowler] was hanging out [laughs], giving me high-fives, hugs. With all the press I had to do, I got back to the bus at 11:15. I had one glass of wine and a champagne toast. We drank out of the trophy that night. It was really special. Butch [Harmon] was at Baltusrol, and I also met up with him later in Vegas, but we didn't get too rowdy.
Didn't you have a mishap involving Butch and a $1,200 bottle of wine you once gave him? You two were supposed to open a bottle of Chateau Margaux after you won your first major, right?
He says it fell and broke in his wine cellar. And I'm calling b.s. on it. I think he drank it a long time ago [laughs].
How has being a major champ changed things for you?
It hasn't changed too much. The guys out on Tour treat me the same. I sign more flags now for charities. I still feel pressure [to win big events]. I put pressure on myself regardless. So I just go out and grind.
What about motivation? Does winning a major add motivation or take it away?
Not even close—there's more for sure.
Really? Because a lot of great, talented players were one-and-done in terms of majors: Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk.
I definitely want to win another major. I want to keep winning, keep getting into contention. I've got the game to win any of 'em. And the courses coming up are good for me. I love [Royal Birkdale]. As for [PGA host] Quail Hollow, I haven't played it in a while, but all it takes is hitting the golf shots you need to hit. You're not gonna hit every shot perfectly, but to win a major everything needs to be on. You don't half-ass it into a win.
Did it feel different playing in last year's Ryder Cup as a major champion?
No, it felt the same. It feels like the Ryder Cup, only more intense because you're at home. It's a different crowd. Your emotions are magnified, because you've got so many people pulling for you. Across the pond, everybody's pulling for the other squad. So there's more pressure at home. And we had a ton of pressure on us last year, with the [Ryder Cup] task force and some things players said in the media. We dug a nice hole for ourselves, and we climbed right out of it, which was pretty impressive.
How does winning a major stack up to being on a victorious Ryder Cup team?
As golfers, we play for ourselves. It's an individual sport. Then we get to the Ryder Cup, this thing with all this history that means so much to a lot of people and to the country, too. And you get to play with your friends. And the USA, well, we'd been getting our ass kicked, so we really wanted to go out and perform for the home crowd. Winning a major gives you great personal satisfaction. But being able to celebrate with your buddies, your team, for your country, it's pretty cool.
How tough will winning that second major be? After all, you're 38, with a lot of young guys looking to dominate.
These kids on Tour, nobody seems to be afraid of anybody anymore. That's why you stay in shape, don't drink too much, don't eat s----y food. You stay healthy. I hit it as far as ever. I'm a lot wiser. I've got a lot of good things going. All you can do is prepare yourself, and if you have a chance to win on Sunday, you give it all you've got to close it out. It's not easy. It's tough to get close [and not win]. A couple years ago, I lost in a playoff to Patrick Reed at the Hyundai. I was like, "Gosh, I had a chance to win." Chances don't come around a ton. I was really frustrated that I didn't close it out. I felt like I let it slip away. When you do win, you've got to savor those moments and enjoy them, because they don't come around a ton. Golf's funny. You win a few and you lose a lot.
Which young guys on Tour will still be around in five, 10 years?
Dustin for sure. He's been playing really well. But the game is so deep, man. Deeper than it's ever been.
With a major and six Tour wins, do you think about getting into the Hall of Fame?
I don't think about the Hall of Fame. It's not something I want written on my gravestone. I just want to enjoy my friends, smile and enjoy what I do. That's what I want—to enjoy the ride. Golf should be fun, and we can lose sight of that. Whether you keep winning or you don't, it's important to work hard, enjoy it. If I do those things, the results will happen.
That sounds like a healthy viewpoint—the Tao of Jimmy.
I've done damn near everything in golf. The mini-tours and Q-School. Losing my card and coming back. Being hurt and coming back. Winning tournaments. Winning Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups. And winning a major. I've ticked a lot of stuff off the list. But there's more to do. I'd love to win two weeks in a row—that would be awesome. I'd love to win all four majors. Don't know why I couldn't—I've got the game. It's a matter of putting it all together and having some luck.
How about this on your gravestone: "He said to hell with the Hall"?
To me, golf is not a Hall of Fame deal, like baseball, football and other sports. Golf is about the championships you've won, the people you've touched, the people you've met and the friendships you've formed. That's golf. I'd rather win three majors and a bunch of Ryder Cups. And if I never get voted in, hey, no sweat off my back. If it's not good enough for whoever's voting, then, whatever. I have my body of work. And that's enough.