CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It hasn’t been the reign that Jimmy Walker envisioned when he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy last year, but there’s no such thing as a bad stint as a major champion.
Walker broke through in a big way at Baltusrol 13 months ago, holding off Jason Day to win the PGA Championship for his first major title. He enters this week at Quail Hollow as the defending champ after a year of battling both health and form issues, but the 38-year-old still looks back on last year’s victory as a career-defining moment.
“I’m not worried about the golf or the game,” Walker said. “Doing what we did last year, being able to win this tournament and set yourself up for basically the rest of your career, is just a nice – it’s a huge relief. But the competitor inside you, it’s kind of hard to take when you can’t get out there and get going.”
Walker vaulted to No. 15 in the world after his PGA triumph, went on to have a successful playoff run, and capped the year with a team win at the Ryder Cup. But he began to feel extreme fatigue in the fall, and after a misdiagnosis of mononucleosis he was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease in April.
The tick-borne ailment has slowed him down and caused him to deal with flu-like symptoms that can often arrive and dissipate on a moment’s notice. In 18 starts this year, he has only one top-10 finish, a T-9 result at the 32-man Tournament of Champions, dropping him to 38th in the ranking.
But Walker says his health has been on the rebound in recent weeks, and he held the 36-hole lead last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. While he faded to a tie for 27th over the weekend, he remains optimistic about his overall prognosis as he gets set to defend a major title for the first time.
“To get sick, not feel well, not be able to work, not be able to practice and then take some time off for medication, yeah, I mean, you get that sensation like, ‘Wow, I’m really falling back,’” Walker said. “But we’ve just taken the mindset that it is what it is, and it’s just the way it is. We just keep working and we keep moving forward, and we keep trying to get as healthy as possible and try to get back to 100 percent and just go from there.”