SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Consider Jimmy Walker.
Not long ago, the 37-year-old was one of American golf’s rising stars. He bagged three titles in 2014, two more in ’15, played in a Ryder Cup and a Presidents Cup and then…
But on a steamy morning here at the 98th PGA Championship, Walker flashed the steady irons and hot putting that fueled his run of two years ago, firing a five-under 65 to grab the clubhouse lead with the afternoon wave of tee times still to begin.
Walker said it felt like a return to the glory days.
“There were shades of that, for sure,” he said. “It played tough, and I hit lots of good shots. Just kind of kept it right out in front of me.”
Walker began his round on Baltusrol’s more gettable back nine, and breezed through it in four under, burying birdie putts of 10, 5 and 15 feet before two-putting the par-5 18th to turn in 32.
He dropped another 20-footer on 1, and for a moment a run at a historically low round was in play. Walker then bogeyed 6, his only blip on the card, to call off “62 Watch,” but on 7 he rammed in a 31-footer from the back fringe, then leaned back and took a look at the sky in disbelief. It was that kind of day
“I’m a good putter,” Walker said. “They say like good shooters, just keep shooting. I’m just going to keep putting, and they are going to start going.”
Walker’s right – he is an excellent putter. But lately it’s been just a shade off, and it’s had an impact. This year he ranks 55th in strokes gained, not shabby, but after finishing second in that stat 2015 and 12th in 2014, the slide has cost him.
“It’s just ebbs and flows of golf. Just haven’t been making the 10-to-15 footers you need to make to start running up the leaderboard and to have high finishes,” he said. “It’s equated to a bunch of 20th-place finishes this year. Definitely different than the last couple.”
Until Thursday, Walker’s major-championship season has been forgettable — 29th at the Masters and missed cuts at Oakmont and Royal Troon. He’s 29th in the current Ryder Cup standings and barring a torrid few weeks will need a captain’s pick to make a second straight team.
“Sometimes it’s hard, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It’s tough. You feel like you’re killing yourself and you’re giving it all you’ve got and you’re just not seeing it. Sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off, but over time, I think it will.”
He’s no stranger to contending in majors. In 2014, during his hot streak, he notched top-10s in three of four, including a career-best 7th at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. This week he’s relaxed – on Wednesday he and his wife, Erin, took their sons to Rickie Fowler’s rental house for a leisurely dip in the pool. Walker is now rested and ready for another crack at his first career major title.
“I do know that on Sunday, with a chance to win, it will feel a little more – it will feel bigger,” he said. “I look forward to having that chance. It will be fun.”