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Walker ready to follow up big year with Frys defense

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NAPA, Calif. – One year ago, Jimmy Walker was like many in the Open field – a journeyman pro, relatively unknown and looking to break through.

With 187 PGA Tour starts, Walker was still without a victory. He was embarking on his seventh season on the circuit and had 19 top-10 finishes, but still could have walked among a tournament gallery relatively unnoticed.

That all changed last year at CordeValle, as Walker erased a three-shot deficit during the final round for his maiden victory. One win led to two, as Walker added the Sony Open to his collection in January, then he captured the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am the following month for good measure.

Before the PGA Tour had even hit the Florida Swing, Walker had banked more than $3.6 million and jumped to the top of the FedEx Cup standings, where he would eventually finish seventh before making his Ryder Cup debut. At age 35, the Texan had finally experienced the type of year that players both young and old often dream of having.

As he gets set to defend his title, with the venue shifting this year to Silverado Resort & Spa, Walker admitted that a few things have changed over the past 12 months. Open: Articles, videos and photos

“It’s funny, you get recognized more, especially after the year that we had,” he said Tuesday. “Out and about, and different tee times, different categories and Thursday and Friday getting to play with different guys.”

After spending so many years on a fruitless search for hardware, Walker now finds himself in unfamiliar territory as a defending champion.

“Just excited to be back. Never been in a position on the PGA Tour to defend,” Walker said. “I don’t think I’ve been in position to defend anywhere. Seems like on the (Tour) if you played well and you won, you got to move up and that type of thing, so this is a first for me.”

While Walker’s success last season was evident from his multiple trips to the winner’s circle, his stats also indicated a significant shift in his level of play. His greens in regulation rank went from 61st in 2013 to 28th in 2013-14, while he moved from 45th to 11th in strokes gained putting and from 27th to third in birdie average.

Walker has preferred to play frequently throughout his PGA Tour career, having made at least 24 starts every season since 2008, and he explained that a commitment to routine following his victory allowed him to build upon the win – rather than feel satisfied with it.

“Nothing has really changed for me as far as going about doing things that I do, golf, how I do it, how I practice,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a good formula going, but I’m always continuing to try to get better and looking at the stats for last year, where I can improve, what we can do, as far as that goes. Still always trying to keep the pedal down and look down the road.”

Walker may be focused on what lies ahead, but make no mistake: his golf over the past year has elevated him to a new echelon. Last year he was No. 63 in the OWGR, but this week he sits at No. 19, with only one player in the field – Matt Kuchar – ahead of him in the latest rankings.

And while the trip to Gleneagles for the Ryder Cup may have ended in disappointment, Walker shined in his debut performance, compiling a 1-1-3 individual record and capping his week with a 3-and-2 victory over Lee Westwood in singles.

There are many in the field this week at Silverado who bear similarities to the 2013 version of Jimmy Walker, instilled with the belief that one good round will lead to four, and that one high finish will result in more. Working toward – and waiting for – their chance to shine under the brightest of lights.

But Walker is no longer among their ranks, having successfully graduated from the chase pack. His first full season as one of the players being targeted begins Thursday.