WITH a name like his, Jimmy Walker was always going to have some Caledonian DNA lurking in his ancestry.
And he does. Which is not to say that the world No.11 has any clue as to where his forebears actually emerged from: he doesn’t. But get him talking about golf in Scotland and this generally stoic soul comes as close as he ever does to animation. Last year he played in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen and – with one caveat – came away loving the experience.
I changed everything around me – manager, coach, caddie ... but the biggest thing was finding out that, to win, I didn’t have to be perfectJimmy Walker
“I have loved my time in Scotland,” says the 36-year-old Oklahoman. “I think the Scots got to know me a little better during the Ryder Cup, which was nice. I’m not sure how much my name played a part, but I got such a warm welcome over there. The fans were amazing at both Royal Aberdeen – one of the toughest courses I have ever played – and Gleneagles. I had a blast at both places. I’m definitely going to be back at Gullane and St Andrews in July.
“I’m hoping to have more of a ‘links’ experience this year though. I thought I’d be hitting more run-up shots at Aberdeen. But I only did that on maybe three holes. Which was a little disappointing. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the Open at Muirfield in 2013. That was a wonderful week on a fantastic course.”
Walker’s professional life hasn’t all been fun and games though. He has seen the other side of the sport too. Only in the last few years has he emerged from a long struggle on the fringes of a PGA Tour on which he has recorded five victories in the last 20 months alone. His is a story of gritty perseverance.
“Player of the Year” on the second-division Nationwide (now the Web.com) Tour in 2004, Walker spent the next few seasons battling – with varying success – relegation from the PGA Tour. After regaining his card at the 2008 Qualifying School, Walker’s 125th place on the money-list in 2009 made him the last exempt player for the following season. A year later he was up to 103rd and in 2011 he was 68th. He moved up again in 2012, to 43rd. Last season he finished seventh on the Fed-Ex Cup standings and banked almost $6m. This year he sits second with over $3.5m in winnings.
It took him a while then. But it’s safe to say he has “arrived”.
“I’m not sure why it took me so long to get where I am now,” says Walker with a shrug. “I did get injured when I first got on tour – my neck can still be a problem even today – and it was a while before I got over that. I wouldn’t trade anything though. Sometimes things in life take longer than you might want. And I guess that applies to my career.
“There were a couple of times I thought about walking away. I didn’t want to keep finishing way down the money-list. That’s no fun. I was killing myself and not really having that much to show for it. It costs a lot of money to operate on tour and when you’re not making that much it’s a constant struggle. So I made a conscious effort to try and get better.”
Perhaps the strangest aspect of all this is that Walker owns one of the most-admired swings on tour. Long and fluid, it is something of a model in today’s power game. So the only things lacking back in the day was confidence and an aggressive on-course approach.
“I’ve always been a decent putter, but pretty much all aspects of my game needed to improve,” he admits. “It was a lot of effort and that drove me on. I didn’t want to spend all that time on something and end up with nothing to show for it. I changed everything around me – manager, coach and caddie. I got a trainer that really helped me.
“I looked at my stats. That helped me focus on all the things I had to work on. But most of all I changed my mentality. I’m a lot more positive on the par-5s. They are where you make your score at tour level. But the biggest thing was finding out that, to win, I didn’t have to be perfect or make a ton of birdies.”
Which, again, is not to say he doesn’t do just that. One week before Jordan Spieth won the Masters last month, the 21-year-old wunderkind was a well-beaten second in San Antonio. It was Walker’s second victory of a season in which he has yet to miss a cut in 12 starts.
“Jimmy just does everything really well,” says renowned swing coach Pete Cowen, who works with world No.3 Henrik Stenson. “He’s not the best in any department of the game but there are no real weaknesses there either. He’s ‘sneaky long’ off the tee. And he putts great.
“On the face of it, there is no real logic behind why he took so long to break through. Some guys just need longer to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. That can destroy some players. But Jimmy has figured it out. Nowadays, he always looks comfortable when he is in contention, which he is on a regular basis.”
Not surprisingly, Walker was one of the stronger links in America’s Ryder Cup chain last September. After three halves alongside compatriot Rickie Fowler – twice against pairs containing world No.1 Rory McIlroy – and a somewhat exhausted Saturday afternoon defeat, Walker went out on the final day and beat Lee Westwood 3&2. His was a terrific overall performance.
“I don’t think there is any one reason why we keep losing the Ryder Cup,” says Walker. “For me, it’s a toss of the coin. You could flip it 20 times and it could obviously go either way every time. That’s the Ryder Cup. It’s not something I worry about.
“Both squads were great. We were missing a couple of guys who could have made a difference, but the team was still strong. The camaraderie aspect of it was what struck me most.
“It meant a lot to stand there with the other guys and look up at the flags. Being part of such a massive event made me proud of my country and where I come from.”
One final thing. While there may be ten men currently ahead of Walker on the world ranking list, the San Antonio resident is undoubtedly golf’s premier “astro-photographer”. In August last year, his striking image of something called the Iris Nebula was chosen as NASA’s “picture of the day”. “I’ve always been curious about what is out there,” he says. “I have a telescope and a camera set up in a really dark place in California, high in the mountains. That cuts through a lot of the junk in the atmosphere. They snap away on a particular target for maybe 20 hours at a time. That’s what makes my pictures look the way they do.”
Which gives us the obvious epitaph: Jimmy Walker – the first-ever golfer with real star quality.