A vintage performance by Walker


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.