Climb up rankings hasn't changed blue-collar Walker

By Rex HoggardJanuary 14, 2015, 7:02 pm

A year ago this week Jimmy Walker arrived in Honolulu for the Sony Open ranked 47th in the world. Already a PGA Tour winner, the then 34-year-old was quiet, some would even say aloof, and every bit an unknown commodity.

While Walker’s competitive fortunes have shifted dramatically in the last 12 months and he’s climbed to 17th in the world, not much else has changed.

To your average American golf fan Walker is an anomaly known more for his affinity for astronomy – he recently posed for a feature in Golf Digest wearing a 62-pound space suit – and his status as one of the few bright spots for the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall.

Born in Oklahoma, settled in Boerne, Texas, Walker is the blue-collar exception to the increasingly neon world of professional golf.

There was no silver spoon, no sponsor exemptions, just a middle-America work ethic and a disarmingly honest way of looking at things, like his take following Monday’s playoff loss to Patrick Reed at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

“I mean gees, you're trying to win a golf tournament,” he shrugged.

“I've been wedging it so dang good and putting good. I was like, let's just get it up to the fairway and wedge it in close,” Walker figured when asked about his strategy on Kapalua’s 15th hole during the final round.

Just don’t confuse folksy for foolish.

It’s likely safe to say Walker is the only Tour player able to immediately distinguish between the Horsehead Nebula and Orion’s Sword; and it stands to reason that it was that genuine thirst for answers, combined with above average athletic ability, that drew Butch Harmon to Walker.

At 71, Harmon freely admits he is always looking to trim his workload, but when Walker approached him in April 2013 the legendary swing coach was intrigued.

Although Walker didn’t fit the mold of Harmon players – a list that includes Hall of Famers (Phil Mickelson) and blue-chip prospects (Rickie Fowler) – after doing an extensive amount of due diligence he saw beyond a resume bereft of Tour victories.

“This is what I saw in Jimmy Walker,” Harmon said on Monday. “This is the guy I thought he could become. I had watched his career a little and knew a little about him. When he first contacted me his wife called me and asked if I was going to work with him? I had been researching him, and the more I talked to other people the more I started to see how much potential he had.”

Within six months Harmon’s subtle changes to Walker’s powerful action led him to his first Tour title, the 2013 Open. He’d win two more times before making his maiden trip to the Masters the following spring, including last year’s Sony Open.

Although he cooled slightly as spring turned to summer, Harmon points to Walker’s play in last year’s majors (top-10 finishes in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship) as a sure sign of progress with his swing and, more importantly, his own expectations.

“One of the big things I had to do with him was instill the confidence in him that he was as good as he was,” Harmon said. “Once he got where he had some belief in himself it became easier for him on the golf course.”

It took Walker 187 Tour starts to win his first title, but he has won three times in his last 31 starts, ranking him just behind Reed for victories in a similar span.

It’s the kind of run that turns a Tour player into his own franchise, but not Walker. He seems to neither seek nor embrace the spotlight that perennially shines on Harmon stablemates Mickelson and Fowler.

He’s not overly active on social media – although he did recently retweet an extensive interview with the last astronauts to fly to the Hubble space telescope – and he doesn’t wear his emotions on the golf course, but for those who do know him, that instant analysis is far too broad of a brush stroke.

“He’s a quiet guy if you don’t know him, but he’s extremely outgoing,” Harmon said. “My wife says he’s one of her favorite Tour players I’ve ever worked with. He’s different than any Tour player I’ve ever worked with.”

Perhaps the most telling example of that passion occurred last week at Kapalua, where he began the final round tied for the lead. Despite assumptions that Walker is a certified flatliner who is immune to the pressures of professional golf, Harmon said he was encouraged to hear his player talk about his “anxiety” prior to each round.

“I'll tell you I was nervous driving on the first tee on Friday for the first round, and didn't eat all my breakfast (on Saturday) because I was pumped and amped about the day,” Walker said. “It’s all part of golf, being excited and excited to play and a chance to win.”

Monday’s miscues at the Tournament of Champions aside – he failed to birdie the 18th hole in regulation and the playoff – it turns out he does have a pulse, as well as a compelling personality to go along with all that talent.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.