Jimmy Walker has joined Jordan Spieth as another Texan among the favorites to win at Augusta National Golf Club this year.
Walker, who lives outside San Antonio, won the final major championship of 2016, the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, in late July. Spieth, who won the 2015 Masters and tied for second in 2014 and 2016, lives in Dallas.
Because the 38-year-old Walker was a late bloomer in terms of winning on the PGA Tour – all six of his wins have come between 2014-16 and he only qualified for the Masters starting in 2014 – he has only 12 tournament rounds under his belt at Augusta National.
“It’s funny, it’s a golf course that you feel as if you’ve played it a thousand times because you’ve watched it on TV so many times,” said Walker, who has one top-10 finish in three starts in the Masters.
Walker does have one “win” on the Augusta National grounds. He captured the Par-3 Contest last year with a record 8-under-par 19, breaking the record of Art Wall Jr. and Gay Brewer by a shot. Walker won by three shots.
Walker had six birdies and a hole-in-one on the second hole. He almost aced the first hole, too.
Walker’s not the superstitious type, he said, so he brushed off talk of the “par-3 jinx” after his victory. Since its inception in 1960, no one has won the Par-3 Contest, held on the eve of the Masters, and gone on to win the tournament that year.
“I know there’s a lot of history that goes along with this, but I think it’s time to buck it,” said Walker, who didn’t. He ended up tying for 29th place.
Just over three months later, Walker went wire-to-wire to win the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, but it was much closer at the end there than it was in his Par-3 Contest win.
Jason Day eagled the par-5 closing hole, meaning Walker needed a par to win.
“That’s brutal sometimes, when you know all you have to do is make a par,” Walker said. “And I haven’t made a bogey all day; you come to the last hole, and just didn’t want that to happen.”
Instead of playing it safe and laying up with his second shot on the par-5, Walker went for the green.
“It’s like I was saying in my head, I said, every time you go for this shot, doesn’t matter what’s going on. You send it right up there onto the green. And I was thinking, you’re going to make par, you know, 19 out of 20 times.”
The second shot ended up in the deep rough next to a greenside bunker.
“I literally hit it in the worst place you could hit it,” Walker said. “I played the pitch shot real safe. I didn’t have the best lie. And I knew I was going to have to make a tough two-putt.”
Indeed, he left himself a 35-footer for birdie, knocked it 3 feet past the hole and made it to become the first player since Phil Mickelson in 2005 to go wire-to-wire for a victory in the PGA Championship.
“Incredible finish, it really was,” Walker said.
Because of weather, Walker played 36 holes in the final round, so he shouldn’t have any problems with stamina for 18 holes at the sometimes hilly terrain at Augusta National.
“You go out and play, and bam, you’re back out playing again,” Walker said of the final day at the PGA Championship. “It was tough to wrap your head around that.”
Because he was playing so well that week at Baltusrol, Walker said “golf feels real easy. I mean, it just does. God, why can’t I do that all the time? But you don’t and you can’t. It’s hard.
“But when you’re on and you’re playing well, and your body feels good, you’re in a good frame of mind; you’re there for a reason. It’s because you’re on, and I think you really need to relish that when you’re in that situation and enjoy that. It doesn’t happen a whole lot. I’ve always tried to embrace that and enjoy it. That’s what you’re out here trying to do is have those chances, and you’ve really got to enjoy it.”