Monday, March 30, 2015
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On Golf: Walker goes from journeyman to juggernaut

By
February 12, 2014 |

PEBBLE BEACH — The brightest lights that interest Jimmy Walker are found in another galaxy through his high-powered telescope.

He goes to Las Vegas strictly for work.

“I’ve probably spent more time with him than anyone else the last two years,” Butch Harmon said Sunday night after watching Walker win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for this third win of a PGA Tour season that is only four months old.

“He’s not a big party guy. He’s not a big gambling guy,” Harmon said. “He comes to Vegas a lot, and he comes to work. He’s just works hard, has a lot of talent, a good demeanor. I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg with this guy.”

It will take a few more months to figure out how big this iceberg might be.

Winning on the PGA Tour has never been more difficult than it is now, which makes Walker’s start even more remarkable. Three wins is a great year for anyone not named Tiger Woods, and Walker has achieved that in only starts.

Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval — the best three Americans of their generation — are the only other players in the last 20 years to have won three times in eight tournaments to start a season. Woods has done it eight times (and still might this year).

Beyond the trophies are the different circumstances for each victory.

Walker was steady in the final hour of the Frys.com Open four months ago at CordeValle, making birdie on a par 5 and closing with three pars for a 66 to take advantage of the late blunders by Brooks Koepka. Last month at the Sony Open, a tournament that any of a dozen players could have won on the back nine, Walker pulled away with three straight birdies for a 7-under 63 and a one-shot win.

Pebble Beach might have been the toughest. He had a six-shot lead going into the final round. Woods, an exception in just about every category throughout his career, is about the only person who looks comfortable with a big lead. Walker couldn’t remember having a lead like that even as a junior golfer.

There was just enough wind at Pebble Beach to expose a mistake, not enough wind that someone could make a run. Dustin Johnson, a two-time winner at Pebble Beach, closed with a 66 despite making three bogeys. Jim Renner shot 31 on the back nine. They finished second — barely.

Walker looked solid through nine holes, had a five-shot lead at the turn, yet had to make a 5-footer for par on the 18th for a 74 and a one-shot victory.

“I think I’m going to put some good stuff in the memory bank of having a big lead and what to with that, how to deal with that, especially coming down the stretch,” Walker said. “I played really well the last three days and … I really just wanted to finish it off. And we did.”

Harmon could see Walker get tentative with his putting stroke, and that’s what made it close. Walker came up woefully short on a wedge to the 13th and three-putted. He missed a 3½-footer for another three-putt bogey on the 17th that cut his lead to one shot playing the 18th. And he provided more drama than he wanted by rolling his 25-foot birdie attempt some 5 feet by the hole on the 18th. The final stroke was his best of the back nine.

“It’s very difficult to have a big lead,” Harmon said. “He’s never had one. He’s never known how to act. I’m proud of him. this will help him in major championships when he gets in that position.”

Walker sought out Harmon two years ago at a time when Harmon was looking to scale back his stable. This does not sound like a big project. Harmon could see that Walker had power in his swing and steady hands on the putter.

“He has an old-school swing with a lot of knee drive in general,” Harmon said. “He had a narrow, long backswing, and when he transferred his weight the club would get behind him. We put some width in his swing. But he’s worked hard on all aspects of his game.”

The test for Walker comes later, and that will be the measure.

Walker went up to No. 24 in the world Monday, a number that would be a little higher except for the strength of the fields he beat. He has played only one World Golf Championship (last year in Shanghai). He has never played more than two majors in a year, and he has only made the cut in a major twice — once in 2001 at Southern Hills in the U.S. Open right after getting out of Baylor.

He has a big lead in the Ryder Cup standings, and while his spot on the U.S. team in October looks to be safe, there are still four majors (double points), three WGCs and The Players Championship (a $10 million purse) ahead of him. There is work left.

Then again, those three wins were not an accident. Winning is hard. After going 187 events without winning, Walker looks comfortable doing it.

“I just go out and play golf,” Walker said. “This is what I want to do and I’ve worked really hard to do it, to be here. And to be in this position and it’s really cool.”

Cool as an iceberg.

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