Walker eyes another hot start to wraparound season

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A new PGA Tour season has begun, which means one thing: it's time for Jimmy Walker to go to work.

Walker is perhaps the poster child for the Tour's wraparound schedule, now in its third edition, and all of the benefits that can be gleaned from a hot start. He won the season opener back in 2013, his first career victory that brought with it his first Masters invite. That led to two more trophies during a breakthrough season that ended with a Ryder Cup appearance.

He didn't win last fall, but he did make several starts, including a T-4 finish at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. That helped him hit the ground running in January, when he followed a playoff loss at Kaplua with a nine-shot romp at the Sony Open. 

Walker is back in action this week in Las Vegas, where he has recorded three straight top-15 finishes. He took a step toward a fourth such result with a 5-under 66 in the opening round at TPC Summerlin, a score that put him two shots off the early pace. 

The 36-year-old feels comfortable in the desert, but he has also made a habit out of capitalizing on the portion of the calendar when many big names opt put the clubs away.

"Getting off to a quick start is always nice. I think anybody will tell you that," Walker said Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to this week. I really enjoy playing here. The golf course is one of my faves."

A strong start is the goal, but Walker is also eager to erase the taste of a poor finish to this most recent season. While he won twice and finished second at the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship, that runner-up proved to be his lone top-10 finish over his final 14 starts. He had a similar regression down the stretch in 2014, but this one was more pronounced and included missed cuts at the Players Championship and the PGA Championship.

While he remained one of the best putters on Tour, Walker finished last season ranked outside the top 100 in both GIR percentage (101st) and driving accuracy (180th).

"I wasn't real happy with the last half of my season this year," he said. "I definitely want to step it back up and get back into playing the kind of golf I can play, and play better."

"He ran out of gas a little," added Walker's swing coach, Butch Harmon, who lives minutes away from this week's venue. "He starts fast and then pushes real hard at the end of the year to make sure he makes the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup."

Walker has made those teams each of the last two years, and for 2016 he has added the goal of qualifying for the Olympics. He is currently the ninth-highest American in the world rankings, with the top four come July expected to qualify for Rio de Janeiro.

In order to pass players like Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk, among others, Walker will need to straighten out his ball-striking. His stat line during Thursday's opener left something to be desired - seven of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation - but Walker's hot putter more than countered any inaccuracies.

There is work to be done, sure. But sometimes the right venue is all that is needed to spark another hot start.

"Place just kind of puts me in a good mood. Vegas is fun, nice place to be," he said. "They treat us right, and it's always good crowds here, and the weather is nice. Just kind of puts you in a good mood, I think."