The scouting report on Jimmy Walker’s return to competition from Lyme disease goes like this: “Physically 80-90 percent. Mentally hard to say. Lyme fog; you can read about it. I am excited to play. Been a while. Nervous. I’ve put on 10 pounds since September. Been eating good.”
The 2016 PGA champion typed those words in a text on Sunday in Hawaii, where he is readying for the Sony Open, his first competitive event since the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open last fall.
Along with aches and pains, the “Lyme fog” reference is one of the symptoms that accompany the diagnosis Walker received during the 2017 Masters and fought most of the season. Physically and mentally there were issues that affected his performance. He dropped from 15th in the world after winning the PGA at Baltusrol, to 68th going into the new season. While part of him enjoyed being at home in Texas with his family – wife Erin also announced last week that she, too, has Lyme disease – Walker also missed the competition and being with his buddies out on Tour.
“I play golf for a living,” he said. “I’m used to all kinds of emotional roller coasters. It’s just life and you’ve got to deal with it.”
With the right meds and treatment program, Walker had enough strength to visit instructor Butch Harmon in Las Vegas before Christmas and begin prep for the 2018 campaign. It was his first practice session in four months.
“Jimmy Walker is the one I’m looking forward to,” Harmon told me when going through the off-season work of his players. "He’s healthy again and we had some really good sessions. It’s probably the best I’ve ever seen him swing it. Last year was tough on him physically and mentally it was a big strain on him. He’s done some great work and he’s ready to go.”
DJ, THE GREENS MONSTER: Putting statistics on the monstrous greens at Kapalua are skewed, especially when they’re distressed as they were during last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions. But the fact Dustin Johnson was second in the field on the Plantation Course with a make ratio of 91.9 percent was an indication that the time Johnson put in at the TaylorMade putting lab in December was well spent.
Keith Sbarbaro, vice president of tour operations for Johnson’s equipment company, sold DJ on the idea to stop by during one of his trips to visit family on the West Coast. Seeing Johnson constantly miss putts and change putters after returning from his rib injury prior to the Masters led Sbarbaro and TaylorMade fitter Duane Anderson to get Johnson into trying 12 different putters, all with different sight lines, from dots to straight lines, and recording the results on a computer.
From 15 feet, Johnson hit five putts with each putter. With some of the putters, Johnson was lining up 8 inches left of the hole. The putter he had been using with no line was barely left of center, but a T-line on a Spider model resulted in Johnson aiming dead down the middle every single time. When Johnson saw the data, he made the switch and won the 2018 season opener by eight strokes.
Of course who knows how long it will last.
"I don’t know if it will stick,” Sbarbaro said. “But it was a good experiment and gave him the confidence that it’s not always him. It could be the putter.”
'TURN THE CORNER': Where is Gary Woodland’s mindset going into the Sony Open?
“It’s really as high as it’s been,” Woodland told me after dropping five spots in the Official World Golf Ranking from a year ago.
Why would the 50th best player in the world be so confident? Because of a heart-to-heart talk with Harmon about getting more out of his athletic ability; a series of short-game lessons (that Harmon arranged) with Pete Cowen during the QBE Shark Shootout; and some putting advice from one of the best putters in the game, Brad Faxon at Old Palm GC.
“January 1st couldn’t get here quick enough,” Woodland said. “I’m ready to turn that corner. It’s been an emotional year, but a growing year both on and off the golf course.”
The “emotional” reference was to wife Gabby losing one of their twins in March, and becoming a father to son Jaxson in June.
“You have to put it in perspective,” Woodland said. “I’ve learned a lot. Unfortunately, I learned a lot the hard way. But after spending New Year’s at home with Gabby, we’re ready to turn the corner and get past the emotional stuff we had to deal with.”