John Wayne has nothing on Jimmy Walker. Like the screen legend, Walker is tall, lanky and ruggedly handsome. He also looks good in western regalia, as selected for his GOLF interview and photo shoot at Cordillera Ranch Golf Club in the suburbs of San Antonio. Not that the 36-year-old has a closet full of Stetsons. “I never dress like this,” Walker says with a laugh. “I’ve never even sat on a horse.”
Walker is no stereotypical Texan. Nor is he a stereotypical pro. After 187 winless starts, he bagged three Tour titles in the 2013-14 season and added two more in 2015, firmly affixing himself as a top-20 player and a major contender. And if the pro golf gig doesn’t pan out, Walker has a fallback: He’s an accomplished astrophotographer. Maybe his meteoric rise isn’t surprising after all…
You kicked off 2015 with a staggering nine-shot win at the Sony Open. How does it feel to be so “in the zone”?
On the greens, I was seeing the lines so good, and I was reading the grain. I was calculating everything just perfectly. I’d put the ball down to line up, get over it and, I mean, it was perfect every time. I was making everything. There was no doubt in my mind. That’s the zone that everybody talks about, and you don’t realize it until after the fact. You sit back and you’re like, “Holy crap, what just happened?”
Two months later, in March, you won your fifth Tour event—in your home base of San Antonio, at the Valero Texas Open. Where does that victory rank for you?
To have a tournament right where you live is very cool. And then to win it? Wow, that’s big. It meant a lot to me, to come home after winning and be here with all my friends. We opened a five-liter bottle of wine and ate pizza and sat on the back porch and relived the day. You just don’t get to do that often. [All wins] are different.They’re all special. And you learn something about yourself every time you do it. At the Valero, I learned how to fend off a young stud who was coming for me.
And you succeeded. Paired with a charging Jordan Spieth, you managed to hold him off.
That was a blast. I’d never done that, where you just start dueling. It was a good fight and he kept firing at me. I had a nice little lead, thank goodness. That was fun. And Jordan’s a great kid. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him and the way he handles himself.
A lot of today’s top players came from Texas—Spieth and Patrick Reed, to name two. Do you feel a sense of regional pride?
Hell, yeah. I always joke, “Texas, man—it’s the greatest country in the world.” [Laughs] There is a lot of pride. And people in Texas, bar none, are the friendliest, nicest people you’ll ever meet. I travel all over the country, all over the world, and I’m happy to call Texas home.
Spieth was 19 when he won his first Tour event. You were 34. Was there an upside to waiting so long for that breakthrough win? Did the journey add character?
Yeah, maybe. I have a lot of stories to tell, because I’ve been down a lot of roads people haven’t been. It’s rare that you get a straight-out success story [like Spieth’s], and it’s great when you do, because that’s what the game needs. But the game also needs other good stories, and it’s cool to be able to tell mine. I’m not just Jimmy Walker the golfer. I have a lot of friends. I’ve got two little boys, I’ve got a great family. It’s all stuff that’s helped me become better.
There’s so much talent on Tour, and it’s so hard to win. As you were coming up the ranks, did you ever think, If I just had a chance to stay out here for a while, I’d make it, and I’d stay.
Yes and no. I mean, I had my chance. When you get your card, you do have your chance. It literally takes one or two really good weeks, and that’s it. You could play 20 events and that’s all it really takes. I had my chances, and I didn’t do it. So I had to go back and go to Q-School. But it’s all stuff that you learn from and it makes you better. I’m not going to say that if I came straight out of Q-school and was just a world-beater and crushed it like Jordan Spieth is doing, that it would be any different. I don’t know, and I’ll never know. All I know is what I’ve done, and what I feel like it’s made me into. I’m 36 years old now. I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’ve got a wife, kids, family, a lot of stuff going on. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done in my past to be where I’m at right now.
What struggles have you faced?
In ’07, my wife, Erin, was talking about going back to work because we were running out of money. Those were tough, tough talks.
Was that your lowest low?
No, the lowest was around ’08, ’09. I was like, “I just don’t want to keep doing this if I’m not going to get out of it what I want.” Yeah, I was playing on the PGA Tour, but it’s a grind, especially if you finish 125th on the money list, which I did one year . And there’s nothing fun about that. It’s grueling, and it puts a lot of pressure on you, your family and on life in general.
Where did you go from there?
About four years ago I made a shift in the way I do things. I was tired of finishing 125th in money. I was working hard but working on the wrong things, and I wanted to figure out what to change, how to put different people in place to help me get better. I sought out who I thought was the best instructor. I got new management. I got a trainer who took care of my body and my injuries. I grabbed up all these people, and they really helped me. I have no problem giving credit where credit is due. And these people really helped me be better.
One of those change agents was Butch Harmon, your swing coach. What has he meant to your game and career?
When I went to Butch, I told him I was a blank slate. I said, “I’ll hit balls, and I want you to tell me what you think.” He told me what to do, and we’ve been doing it. I still need to work on some things, and we make tweaks here and there. With him at my side, we’ve done some really good stuff.
Five wins over the last two years is good stuff, all right. Share some of your trade secrets. What tweaks did Butch have you make?
He’s given me a big injection of confidence. When the world’s best teacher keeps telling you how good you are and that you’re going to win, and you’re going to win a lot—well, it’s just weird that it’s happened. [Laughs] It’s like he literally gave me an injection of confidence. Butch makes you believe in what he says, and he makes you believe in yourself.
What were those first sessions like?
It was intimidating as hell. I sat in his office and he goes, “So what do you want?” I told him what I wanted to improve. He got me hitting balls in front of him. But he doesn’t put on a show like he’s the big dog. He’s just an old-fashioned good ol’ boy, and he made me feel at ease. I got done hitting balls, and I was like, “Wow, that felt really productive.” It was great. I got everything out of it I wanted. And I think that’s an indicator of a good teacher. He made me believe that what he was telling me was right. It wasn’t, “How did that feel?” He doesn’t care how it feels. He knows swing changes will feel bad at first. He’d just say, “You were doing it right” or “You were doing it wrong.” He’s direct. I appreciate that.
It sounds like he taught you to believe in yourself and to trust the process.
He makes you believe that what he’s telling you is the truth: “This is how it works, this is how we’ll do it, and this is why.” And you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right.” You don’t refute it. There’s a lot of trust. It’s harder to trust the older you get, and I came to Butch late. People don’t like to be told what to do. It’s human nature. The older we get, the harder it is to change. It’s taken a lot of discipline to accept what he says.
Because Butch has helped you so much, does it ever make you think, Tiger’s crazy to have ever left this guy?
I can’t get into what Tiger is doing. [It’s easy to think], Wow, you’re on that great run, you’ve got a great thing going. Why change? I don’t have the answer to what Tiger’s doing. But I like the run I’m on.
Once players get to your level, they tend to plan their season schedule around the major events. Do you also find yourself doing that now?
Some guys do. But it’s more of, there’s different world events that you’re allowed to play in when your world ranking gets up, and you get on a different of a schedule, and that’s very new for me. I’m still trying to adjust to it a little bit. But I’m not “gearing up.” If I do my work, I can show up and play any golf course, any tournament. The majors are still golf. I’m still out there playing with the same guys I play golf with every week.
You’re not a flashy guy. You have a quiet demeanor. Do you think this negatively impacts the attention you deserve?
Probably. I’m on the wrong side of 35. I do all the fun stuff the kids do, but I don’t publicize it a lot on social media.
You might be the only Tour winner whose wife has more Twitter followers.
[Laughs] That’s probably true. Erin knows what to say and what not to say, and she’s good about it. I’m just not into it. Twitter’s weird. I don’t mind Twitter for news, but it just seems like there’s a lot of mean-spirited stuff on Twitter. I’m more on Instagram. I’m more of an artist off the golf course. I like astronomy, and taking pictures [of the stars]—just letting everybody in a little bit on my life. Instagram, to me, seems more of a place for real fans, for people who are engaging and really appreciative. I tried Twitter for a bit and didn’t get much out of it. But I’ve got more Instagram followers than my wife has Twitter followers. [Laughs]
Let’s talk about the 2014 Ryder Cup, at Gleneagles in Scotland. It was your first Ryder Cup, and Team USA endured a stinging defeat. Was it a mostly positive or negative experience?
It was a bummer for the team, and a bummer for the U.S., the way it all shook down. For me personally, I got to meet and hang out with a bunch of new guys. I took away a lot from that. I learned a lot about myself.
What lessons did you learn?
I learned how engaged I could be in every shot I hit. I got done with the week and I was very tired. Every shot I hit at the Ryder Cup meant something way bigger than just me. I was playing for Rickie [Fowler, Walker’s partner in four matches]. I was playing for my team. I was playing for my country. It was a big deal to me, and I gave it everything I had.
What was it like playing against Rory McIlroy, who was coming off two major wins?
It was a blast. Making putts on top of Rory was just one highlight. Holing a bunker shot [for eagle], making chips, having a killer singles match [Walker defeated Lee Westwood]. It was all positives, an amazing week. I look back at pictures and all those people in the crowds, and the way the locals treated us—it was incredible. I want to be on the next team.
Do you think the team suffered from a lack of leadership under Tom Watson?
We all went out and played as hard as we could. For what we were told to do, we went out and gave it everything we had. Nobody slacked off. We just got beat. Could other guys have played when some guys were mentally toast? Yes, maybe. Second-guessing is easy. The two teams are so equal—winning is a flip of the coin. It sucks, but there’s going to be a loser. On paper we were better, but we got beat.
You’re passionate about astrophotography. Do you get to devote much time to it?
Quite a bit. I find little odd times to do it. I’ve gotten efficient—or maybe that’s just my style. A lot of guys take weeks and weeks to work on a picture, but I can bust through one in an hour or two. It’s therapeutic. It keeps my brain working. I feel like I’m doing something productive outside of the game, outside of my life. You’ve got to have something outside of what you do that keeps you sane.
Do you obsess over your rounds?
Everybody thinks I’m so calm and collected, but I’m pretty fiery. I can get ticked off. I keep it to myself, but I can get pissed. It’s quiet rage—it’s not roses and daisies all the time. But you have to let it go. Just give me 45 minutes after the round, let me chill out. You’ve got to vent, to release. We all do. Hell, everybody’s got a bad day. It’s just that our bad days are online and on TV. It’s tough. A lot of this stuff is still new to me, and something I need to get better at. I’ve never had to answer questions after a bad round, because, you know, nobody cared. [Laughs] Now people care.
Does having a stable family life make you a better player?
Definitely. It helps provide an important sense of balance. It puts things into perspective. Before I had a family, I felt like it was always about golf. And I’ve come to realize that it’s important to put the game away and shut the door on it for a while. It’s okay to take a week off. It’s okay to take two weeks off. I’ve learned about quality, not quantity.
You’ve gone from a journeyman to a juggernaut. What hopes do you have for your golf legacy?
I hope my legacy is not even close to being written. I feel and hope that I’m just starting to scratch the surface. Butch tells me all the time, “You’re not even close to being done.” And I’ve started to believe it. I want to do a lot more in golf. I’m 36, but I hit it farther than all the kids coming out. I chip and putt as good as I ever have, I hit it as good as I ever have, and I’m smarter than I’ve ever been. So maybe that’s a good recipe.