Masters 2015: Jimmy Walker Is Rory McIlroys Chief Rival

April 1, 2015

Augusta, we have identified the top challenger to world No. 1 Rory McIlroy at the Masters. Say hello to Jimmy Walker, the tenacious Texan who continues to give us reasons to dare to overlook him. You need evidence? Fine, here goes.

Walker has five wins in the last two seasons, including two this year. The PGA Tour is 20 events into its 2014–15 wraparound schedule, and on Sunday, with his dominating performance at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, Walker became the first repeat winner. He stretched his lead to as many as seven shots before finishing four clear of 21-year-old wunderkind Jordan Spieth. The next closest competitor, Billy Horschel, was a distant seven strokes back. Walker, who played collegiately at Baylor and lives in suburban San Antonio, absolutely ruled.

You may recall that putting is kinda-sorta important on the Alps-like greens at Augusta National. Well, the man can flat-out roll his ball. When Spieth pushed Walker at the Oaks course at TPC San Antonio on the closing holes, he responded. After Spieth made a birdie at 15, Walker holed a tricky eight-footer for par. Spieth hit it close at 16, but Walker drained a 16-footer for a birdie of his own. Spieth hit it close again at 17 to set up another birdie, only to have Walker match him with an 18-footer. Considering Walker’s history, that’s nothing. You want pressure? In 2009, Walker faced a 4½-footer on the final green of the year’s final event to keep his PGA Tour playing privileges. “I poured it in the center,” he said.

Though he is ranked a career-best 10th in the world, Walker is underrated and overlooked because he’s 36. Potential is measured in talent plus time remaining. Thus, golf is ga-ga over 20-somethings such as McIlroy and Spieth and Patrick Reed. Walker doesn’t have enough years left to challenge golf’s career marks, so he gets dismissed. But lest we forget, note who the hoss was in the Ryder Cup last September in a pairing with Rickie Fowler.

Walker has played in only 10 majors, but his record is impressive nonetheless. Last year, in his first visit to Augusta National, he tied for eighth. He was T-9 at the U.S. Open and T-7 at the PGA. Another pressure point: After opening with a 79 in his first national championship, at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, he made the cut thanks to a second-round 66, the third-lowest score of the week.

Back then Walker was 22, with the world in front of him. Now he’s making up for the time he lost over the years to an assortment of injuries. He works with Butch Harmon, golf’s greatest teacher, and he’s been a quick study. Walker, who on Monday headed to Augusta on a reconnaissance mission, is long off the tee, hits towering iron shots and putts the eyes out of the ball. Think that’ll play at Augusta?

We do too.

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