Sunday, July 31, 2016

Patience pays off at last for PGA champion Jimmy Walker

SPRINGFIELD, N.J.—Two weeks ago, Jimmy Walker was sitting alone in a rented house in Scotland, watching as his housemates—guys by the names of Spieth, Fowler, and Dufner—were winding their way through the final two rounds of the British Open. Walker was the only one of their house, which also included Zach Johnson, Jason Dufner, and Justin Thomas, to miss the cut. He stuck around, listening to the television commentary, raising a drink or two for those two golf-free days, and then he went back to work.

Fourteen days later, he’s a major champion.

In winning the 2016 PGA Championship on Sunday, Walker produced one of the steadiest exhibitions of golf you’ll ever see from a major winner. He didn’t do anything exceptionally well, he just did everything right at exactly the right time. And when pressure cranked up to spine-cracking levels, well, Walker just sauntered on up and took care of business.

More on that in a moment. First, the background. Walker’s a lanky Texan, a 37-year-old journeyman who’s spent most of his professional life trying to become the Next Big Thing. For a brief moment in 2014, it appeared he’d rocketed right on past that status and straight to “star”; after going 187 Tour events without a win, he won three times in eight starts and five overall. He carded top-10 finishes in three of the four majors, and he appeared on his way to golf’s heights.

Then, something happened. More properly, nothing happened. Walker won the Valero Texas Open in March 2015, and then couldn’t sniff the top of the leaderboard. He missed the cut in three of the next seven majors, including that British Open, and could only watch as guys five, ten, fifteen years younger than him hoisted Wanamaker Trophies and shrugged into green jackets.

But Walker’s a patient dude. You have to be patient to live in miles-from-anywhere in central Texas. You have to be patient to be any good at Walker’s chosen hobby, astronomical photography. And you have to be patient to stand in the center of the fairway on the 72nd hole of a major, watching as the world no. 1 drains an eagle putt to get within a single stroke of you, and believe that this is still your time, your day.

In that moment, with the light flattening and the Baltusrol crowd bellowing, Walker faced the four most important shots of his career. His tee shot on the par-5 18th had landed in a fine spot in the fairway, 287 yards from the pin. And as he was walking up to his ball, the grandstands erupted; ahead, Jason Day had sunk that eagle to draw within one shot. A par, and Walker would win a major. A bogey, and he’d be in a playoff. Any worse …

But Walker knew what he had to do, and he knew the odds. Nineteen times out of 20, he thought, you’re going to make a five going for the green from right there.

“Andy,” Walker said to his caddy, Andy Sanders, “we just send it up by the green, don’t we?”

“Yeah,” Sanders replied, “Let’s do it.”

Let’s do it. Two hundred eighty-seven yards to a major. Walker drew a three-wood, prompting a range of second-guessing from the on-air broadcast crew. And for an instant, his approach seemed to verify their skepticism; his shot veered straight in the direction of the CBS Sports booth. It tapped off a camera and came to rest about 88 feet from the pin, just on the other side of a bunker.

“I literally hit it in the worst place you could hit it,” Walker said later. “I didn’t mean to. It just happened.”

So there you go. Three shots left for a major. Walker chipped up and over the pin, leaving himself 33 feet to the pin.

Two shots left for a major. Walker ran the putt just past the flag, leaving himself a touch under three feet for the comebacker.

One shot left for a major. Walker and Sanders conversed for a moment, and then Sanders backed off, leaving Walker alone in the middle of a Jersey crowd that for the first time all day—maybe the first time in their lives—was silent.

There’s the read, he told himself. There’s the line. You’re a good putter. Now knock it in the hole.

So he did, and everything exploded.

Walker’s wife Erin and his two sons ran onto the green, trailed by an army of blue-jacketed PGA officials. Walker hoisted his younger son with one arm while holding his putter with the other, and together they walked off the green. The first one waiting there for them was Day.

Golf’s always been big on friendly rivalries, but today’s players go concrete-heavy on the friendly and feather-light on the rivalry. Walker and Day are longtime friends—Day called him a “tremendous bloke” after the round—and exchange tips on RVs as they travel from tournament to tournament and park together. And Spieth and Fowler were standing among the crowd waiting for Walker to come off the green, each embracing him as he walked to the scorer’s tent.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Fowler said. “I told him it was time to go get the big one, and he stuck with it. I know that he’s been struggling, and it’s been a hard fight. But I’ve seen him play. I know how he can play.”

“I think it’s great that these young guys ask me to come play and hang out with them,” Walker said. “It’s just amazing to me seeing those guys come out and support me, because you don’t have to, and they did.”

A major trophy. Good friends. A family waiting for him, Erin saying “Holy [expletive]” in exhilarated disbelief as his sons wrestled with Fowler. Life’s pretty good for Jimmy Walker right at this moment, unexpectedly so.

“I didn’t see this coming,” he said afterward, pausing to stare at the gargantuan Wanamaker Trophy at his side. “I wasn’t right there. A year ago, two years ago, I would’ve said I’m right there. But you never know.”

Now that he’s slain one dragon, he only wants more. “You want to win golf tournaments, and then when you win golf tournaments, everybody says, ‘You gotta win a major,’” he said. “I want to keep doing it. It’s so much fun to be in the mix.”

Patience pays off.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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