A vintage performance by Walker

By Ryan LavnerAugust 1, 2016, 2:32 am

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – It’s time to uncork that bottle.

At his home in Las Vegas, Butch Harmon has stashed away in his wine cellar a $1,200 Chateau Margaux. It was a gift from Jimmy Walker.

Harmon had refused to accept any payment for their first few lessons, in 2013, so Walker gave him the 16-year-old bottle as a thank-you present. The legendary swing coach never opened it. He wanted to wait until the day Walker won a major.

“I’ve been saving it for a special occasion,” Harmon said late Sunday at Baltusrol, “and this is a special occasion.”

Then he turned around and nodded at Walker, who was posing for pictures with the Wanamaker Trophy.

“I’m gonna take it to Texas,” Harmon said, “and pour it in that big old cup over there.”

A drab, marathon final day at the PGA Championship came to life in the final 15 minutes. What had been a comfortable three-shot cushion as Walker strode down the 18th fairway was reduced to a one-stroke margin when world No. 1 Jason Day poured in a 15-foot eagle putt on the last.

The tension was ratcheted up even more once Walker dumped his approach into the worst possible spot: a gnarly lie right of the green, short-sided, about 8 feet below the surface of the green. Needing only a par on his 36th hole of the day, he chopped out well past the flag and coolly two-putted for victory.

That Walker, 37, captured a major wasn’t the surprise here – as recently as last April, he was a top-10 player in the world, with five wins in an 18-month span. It was the timing of his breakthrough.

By almost any measure, the past year has been a struggle. His long game suffered. His putter cooled off. And his psyche took a beating.

“He lost faith in himself this year,” Harmon said. “Things weren’t working right and that’s how it goes sometimes. This is a hard league you’re in. I just had to do some work to get his head back in the game.”


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After all, that missing piece was one of the main reasons Harmon was so intrigued by Walker back in 2013. At 26, Walker was the Web.com Tour Player of the Year, but his career was derailed by a neck injury. When he finally made it to the big leagues, he went winless in his first 187 starts.

“There were some mechanical changes we had to make,” Harmon said, “but those were pretty easy. I had to make him believe how good he was. He wasn’t sure that he was as good as I thought he could be and I told him that. He went out and proved it.”

As is often the case with Harmon, the fix to Walker’s game was simple. After a missed cut at The Open, Walker moved closer to the ball and tried to maintain the flex in his right knee.

“For the last three weeks, I’ve been saying, ‘He’s trending,’” said Walker’s caddie, Andy Sanders. “We’ve been building, making progress, moving up, getting better.” 

In practice-round matches here at Baltusrol, Walker put on such a stripe show that he blew away one of Harmon’s fellow students, Rickie Fowler.

“It was some of the best I’ve seen him swing it,” Fowler said, “hitting it close on every hole.”

Trusting the changes, and himself, was the final piece to Walker’s success. Before he headed out for his 36-hole day, Harmon told him: “Just go out and show them who Jimmy Walker really is.”

Sure enough, he played his last 28 holes without a bogey – remarkable, when you consider that he hadn’t played a blemish-free round since May – and became just the third player in the past 20 years to win the PGA wire to wire.

“Jimmy just played too good all day,” Day said.

Afterward, a worn-out Walker rushed to take pictures with PGA staffers, greens staff and family before nightfall.

It was a reminder of just how close they’d come to pushing the year’s final major into an extra day, or two, and how they’d spared the PGA from another night of overheated discussion and second-guessing.

Despite a dicey forecast that called for more stops and starts than Manhattan traffic, players were sent out in pairs off the first tee Saturday, with the last group slated for 2:55 p.m. local time. Walker didn’t even get halfway through his warmup before the horn sounded to suspend play.

Facing a media mob five hours later, PGA setup czar Kerry Haigh squirmed as he was bombarded with questions about why they didn’t tee off earlier, and in threesomes, to avoid the exact scenario that sent the 2005 PGA here off-track. Most peculiar was how Haigh and Co. clung to one time-honored tradition – everybody must start at No. 1! – while eschewing another, with no re-pair after 54 holes.

Of course, those minor inconveniences paled to the PGA’s unprecedented decision Sunday morning, midway through the 36-hole slog. For the first time in major-championship history, they allowed preferred lies in the fairways that had more worms than grass. On a rain-softened course, there was plenty of locker-room chatter that a player might lift, clean and cheat himself into the record books with the first 62 in a major. But no one even sniffed that hallowed mark.

After all of the initial handwringing, the decision to play the ball up was universally praised by the players, even though it didn’t produce the most thrilling golf – a series of clobbered drives, plugged irons and birdie putts left short on the chewed-up greens.

That was the early pattern for Walker, at least until the 10th hole. After beginning his round with nine consecutive pars, he holed out from the bunker for a much-needed birdie, then followed it up on 11 with a 30-foot slider to push two shots clear of Day.

When Walker moved three ahead after a short birdie on 17, it looked like he’d be able to enjoy a victory lap on the final hole.

That’s when Day ripped a 240-yard 2-iron to 15 feet and rolled in the putt, igniting the crowd. Even better, he glared back down the fairway, sending a message to Walker, who was waiting with ball in hand, 287 yards away, needing only a 5.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sanders told Walker after seeing the crowd explode, and his boss agreed.

Rather than lay up to a comfortable distance, Walker crunched the numbers and decided that ripping a 3-wood up toward the green was his best option. He wouldn't make bogey from there.

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

Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Day had returned to the 18th green to watch the drama unfold. Tracking the action on CBS' small handheld monitor, Spieth implored his friend and fellow Texan to play the smart shot, to send his pitch shot to the back of the green, to two-putt for par and his first major title.

As Walker calmly stroked in his 3-footer to win, Fowler documented the moment on Snapchat; Spieth tugged nervously on his upper lip; Day shushed his son, Dash; and Harmon waited high above the green, in the Sky Sports TV booth. “This is the first time I ever wanted to stop talking,” he joked.

The cheers from the crowd said plenty.

Just before 8 p.m., Harmon was relieved of his TV duties. He made his way down from the tower and onto the green. Finally, it was his turn for a picture, for a shot with the Wanamaker, and in that moment he couldn’t help but tease Walker about his new beard.

“It’s special,” Harmon said a few moments later, his eyes welling with tears. “He was a great friend before we even worked together. I’m just happy for him.”

The plan is to meet up soon in Walker’s hometown of Boerne, Texas, coach and student, and to celebrate. They won't forget the wine opener.  

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Stock Watch: Strange grumpy; Tiger Time again?

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 1:00 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): This should put his whirlwind 17 months in the proper context: Rahm (38) has earned four worldwide titles in 25 fewer starts – or a full season quicker – than Jordan Spieth (63). This kid is special.

Tommy Fleetwood (+7%): Putting on a stripe show in windy conditions, the Englishman defended his title in Abu Dhabi (thanks to a back-nine 30) and capped a 52-week period in which he won three times, contended in majors and WGCs, and soared inside the top 15 in the world.

Sergio (+3%): Some wholesale equipment changes require months of adjustments. In Garcia’s case, it didn’t even take one start, as the new Callaway staffer dusted the field by five shots in Singapore.

Rory (+2%): Sure, it was a deflating Sunday finish, as he shot his worst round of the week and got whipped by Fleetwood, but big picture he looked refreshed and built some momentum for the rest of his pre-Masters slate. That’s progress.

Ken Duke (+1%): Looking ahead to the senior circuit, Duke, 48, still needs a place to play for the next few years. Hopefully a few sponsors saw what happened in Palm Springs, because his decision to sub in for an injured Corey Pavin for the second and third rounds – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard – was as selfless as it gets.


FALLING

Austin Cook (-1%): The 54-hole leader in the desert, he closed with 75 – the worst score of anyone inside the top 40. Oy.

Phil (-2%): All of that pre-tournament optimism was tempered by the reality of his first missed cut to start the new year since 2009. Now ranked 45th in the world, his position inside the top 50 – a spot he’s occupied every week since November 1993 – is now in jeopardy.

Careful What You Wish For (-3%): Today’s young players might (foolishly) wish they could have faced Woods in his prime, but they’ll at least get a sense this week of the spectacle he creates. Playing his first Tour event in a year, and following an encouraging warmup in the Bahamas, his mere presence at Torrey is sure to leave everyone else to grind in obscurity.

Curtis Strange (-5%): The two-time U.S. Open champ took exception with the chummy nature of the CareerBuilder playoff, with Rahm and Andrew Landry chatting between shots. “Are you kidding me?” Strange tweeted. “Talking at all?” The quality of golf was superb, so clearly they didn’t need to give each other the silent treatment to summon their best.

Brooks Koepka (-8%): A bummer, the 27-year-old heading to the DL just as he was starting to come into his own. The partially torn tendon in his left wrist is expected to knock him out of action until the Masters, but who knows how long it’ll take him to return to game shape.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.