A year ago this week Jimmy Walker arrived in Honolulu for the Sony Open ranked 47th in the world. Already a PGA Tour winner, the then 34-year-old was quiet, some would even say aloof, and every bit an unknown commodity.
While Walker’s competitive fortunes have shifted dramatically in the last 12 months and he’s climbed to 17th in the world, not much else has changed.
To your average American golf fan Walker is an anomaly known more for his affinity for astronomy – he recently posed for a feature in Golf Digest wearing a 62-pound space suit – and his status as one of the few bright spots for the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall.
Born in Oklahoma, settled in Boerne, Texas, Walker is the blue-collar exception to the increasingly neon world of professional golf.
There was no silver spoon, no sponsor exemptions, just a middle-America work ethic and a disarmingly honest way of looking at things, like his take following Monday’s playoff loss to Patrick Reed at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
“I mean gees, you're trying to win a golf tournament,” he shrugged.
“I've been wedging it so dang good and putting good. I was like, let's just get it up to the fairway and wedge it in close,” Walker figured when asked about his strategy on Kapalua’s 15th hole during the final round.
Just don’t confuse folksy for foolish.
It’s likely safe to say Walker is the only Tour player able to immediately distinguish between the Horsehead Nebula and Orion’s Sword; and it stands to reason that it was that genuine thirst for answers, combined with above average athletic ability, that drew Butch Harmon to Walker.
At 71, Harmon freely admits he is always looking to trim his workload, but when Walker approached him in April 2013 the legendary swing coach was intrigued.
Although Walker didn’t fit the mold of Harmon players – a list that includes Hall of Famers (Phil Mickelson) and blue-chip prospects (Rickie Fowler) – after doing an extensive amount of due diligence he saw beyond a resume bereft of Tour victories.
“This is what I saw in Jimmy Walker,” Harmon said on Monday. “This is the guy I thought he could become. I had watched his career a little and knew a little about him. When he first contacted me his wife called me and asked if I was going to work with him? I had been researching him, and the more I talked to other people the more I started to see how much potential he had.”
Within six months Harmon’s subtle changes to Walker’s powerful action led him to his first Tour title, the 2013 Frys.com Open. He’d win two more times before making his maiden trip to the Masters the following spring, including last year’s Sony Open.
Although he cooled slightly as spring turned to summer, Harmon points to Walker’s play in last year’s majors (top-10 finishes in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship) as a sure sign of progress with his swing and, more importantly, his own expectations.
“One of the big things I had to do with him was instill the confidence in him that he was as good as he was,” Harmon said. “Once he got where he had some belief in himself it became easier for him on the golf course.”
It took Walker 187 Tour starts to win his first title, but he has won three times in his last 31 starts, ranking him just behind Reed for victories in a similar span.
It’s the kind of run that turns a Tour player into his own franchise, but not Walker. He seems to neither seek nor embrace the spotlight that perennially shines on Harmon stablemates Mickelson and Fowler.
He’s not overly active on social media – although he did recently retweet an extensive interview with the last astronauts to fly to the Hubble space telescope – and he doesn’t wear his emotions on the golf course, but for those who do know him, that instant analysis is far too broad of a brush stroke.
“He’s a quiet guy if you don’t know him, but he’s extremely outgoing,” Harmon said. “My wife says he’s one of her favorite Tour players I’ve ever worked with. He’s different than any Tour player I’ve ever worked with.”
Perhaps the most telling example of that passion occurred last week at Kapalua, where he began the final round tied for the lead. Despite assumptions that Walker is a certified flatliner who is immune to the pressures of professional golf, Harmon said he was encouraged to hear his player talk about his “anxiety” prior to each round.
“I'll tell you I was nervous driving on the first tee on Friday for the first round, and didn't eat all my breakfast (on Saturday) because I was pumped and amped about the day,” Walker said. “It’s all part of golf, being excited and excited to play and a chance to win.”
Monday’s miscues at the Tournament of Champions aside – he failed to birdie the 18th hole in regulation and the playoff – it turns out he does have a pulse, as well as a compelling personality to go along with all that talent.