THE HYUNDAI Tournament of Champions is supposed to be a mellow working vacation, but apparently nobody told Jimmy Walker. While his colleagues were deep-sea fishing and snorkeling, he was grinding on the range. Let others tweet pictures from their whale-watching excursions—Walker was too busy texting videos of his action to his swing coach, Butch Harmon. The only time he hit the beach was during the photo shoot for this story. It's not that Walker, who turns 35 on Jan. 16, didn't appreciate his first trip to paradise. Quite the opposite; he took the tournament so seriously because it meant so much for him to have finally arrived. "After I won"—the Frys.com Championship in October, his first PGA Tour victory after 187 starts—"one of my first thoughts was that I was finally going to Kapalua. I had watched it on TV forever, thinking about how much I wanted to win so I could earn my spot. It's a special deal. You know what it takes: You have to win. It's pure. There's no b.s. Heck, yeah, it's a cool feeling to be here."
Walker was mulling this over last Friday night at the Ritz-Carlton bar, nursing a Longboard beer. He was still a bit sullen from his first-round, even-par 73 earlier in the day. Elevated expectations are a new burden. Walker had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing 30th on the money list ($2.18 million). After the blink-and-you-miss-it off-season, the Fry's was the first tournament on the rejiggered 2014 schedule. Walker went 62--66 on the weekend in San Martin, Calif., to break through. The revelation was not that he had to do anything particularly special to win but rather do the same old stuff just a little better. "That whole Sunday, I never felt nervous," he says of his two-shot victory. "I was comfortable being in that position. It just felt like it was my time."
He followed with strong showings in Las Vegas (12th) and Malaysia (sixth), becoming the poster boy for the brave new world of the wraparound schedule. In less than a month Walker hauled in $1.3 million and enough FedEx Cup points to sit atop the standings as he headed to Maui. It was during practice rounds at the Plantation course when it finally hit him that he is now keeping pretty elite company. "You're out there on the course and you don't see anybody—it's deserted," Walker says. "It takes a little while to realize that's because so few guys are here."
Among the missing were three players in the top 10 of the World Ranking who failed to win a PGA Tour event in 2013 ... or one of the first six events on the 2014 schedule: Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker and Sergio García. Other bold-faced names who were not worthy of a place in the field included Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel, Jim Furyk and Keegan Bradley, all of whom are in the top 20. (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson qualified for the T of C but chose to extend their off-seasons, as has been their custom.) The absence of this much star power is not great for the tournament, but it does bring to the forefront some of the Tour's emergent personalities, like Walker, who was born in Oklahoma City and played his college golf at Baylor. His long journey to Maui calls to mind Ernest Hemingway's description of how to go broke: gradually, and then suddenly.
WALKER'S FIRST big score came at a Web.com event in Salt Lake City in 2004, when he met his future wife, Erin. (He also won twice that year on the Tour's developmental circuit.) "I definitely wasn't looking," he says. "I'd had a string of bad encounters [with women] on the road." Only recently had he shaken a stalker he met in Wichita, Kans.; the woman showed up uninvited at the ensuing two tournaments, calling out to Walker during his rounds. Erin was from the area and attending her first event, working as a volunteer. They were introduced by a mutual friend and spent half an hour flirting on the practice putting green. She told Jimmy that another player had handed her a golf ball on which he had written, CAN I HAVE A DATE? Never mind that this would-be Casanova was twice her age and married. As they were saying goodbye, Jimmy signed a golf ball for her as a joke. "I'm not going to write a cheesy pickup line on the ball," he told her.
"It'd be O.K. if you did," Erin replied.
Says Jimmy now, "I thought, Oh, O.K.!"
They had dinner the next night, but Jimmy didn't get even a courtesy peck on the cheek at the end of the date. After two weeks of burning up the phone lines, the couple reconnected at a tournament in Oregon and the romance commenced. One problem: Erin was still casually dating Ted Ligety, the future Olympic gold medalist in Alpine skiing. (Erin was a Junior Olympic skier whose career was derailed when she dislocated her hip during her junior year in high school.) "But he had gone to New Zealand for a month, and I had no way of getting ahold of him," she says with a laugh. "When Ted came back, I was like, I kind of met someone."
The Walkers were engaged four months after they met, and they married in September 2005 at the end of Jimmy's rookie year on Tour, which was cut short by a bulging disk in his neck. After a return to the Buy.com circuit in 2007, he stuck for good on the big Tour, though he would have surgery on his left knee in 2010 and on the other in '11. (Walker blames bad genes for his balky joints.) The difficult recoveries became part of the narrative of a cut-making machine who made a good living but was not quite good enough to win. Wild driving was Walker's biggest weakness, but he prefers to see the silver lining: "I'm really good out of the rough because I have so much practice at it. I don't get bent out of shape missing fairways anymore. I can spin the ball, cut it, work it...."
SEEKING MORE consistency in his long game, Walker cold-called Harmon in April 2012, sending the swing-guru-to-the-stars a text message to ask if they could meet for a range session. "It took three weeks for him to answer back," Walker says. "It was a little discouraging, but in fairness we'd never even talked."
Walker spent a day with Harmon at his swing factory in Las Vegas, and they enjoyed each other's company. In the weeks after, they kept in touch electronically, with Walker sending video of his swings and Harmon responding with his musings. "All of a sudden he went silent on me," Walker says. "Quite a few messages went unreturned."
Erin is a spicy personality and a fierce advocate for her husband. Fed up, she sneaked Harmon's number out of her hubby's phone and dashed off a text. "Jimmy was really bummed about the situation," she says, "so I felt I had to do something.
"I wrote to Butch, 'Look, you don't know me, I'm Jimmy Walker's wife. If you don't want to work for him, just say so. We need to move on.' He got back to me like five minutes later. He said, 'Sorry, I've been busy....' "
Harmon was cowed into putting in long hours with Walker at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte and the following week at the Players. In parting, Walker said, "Butch, I don't know what your deal is with your guys, just tell me what I owe you."
"You don't owe me anything."
So when Walker returned home to San Antonio, he dug around in his wine cellar and found the perfect thank-you gift, which he'd been sitting on for three years: a bottle of 2000 Chateau Margaux, a Bordeaux that sells for up to $1,200. Little wonder that at the end of the year Harmon asked Walker if he'd like to join his stable and work together full-time.
IN 2013 Walker married his stellar short game to a career-best 20th in driving distance (298.5 yards) and 61st in greens in regulation, but the new swing remains a work in progress. "We've been trying to get my body and head moving toward the target on the downswing," Walker says. "I have a tendency to hang back and not release the club."
During a second-round 73 at Kapalua, Walker's arms and lower body were out of sequence, and he hit a series of blocks far to the right. After the round he repaired to the range to shoot video, which was beamed to Harmon in Las Vegas. In real time Harmon prescribed a series of drills, including placing an umbrella on the ground next to the ball to force his pupil to swing more down the line. The Walkers had planned to take their sons Mclain (3½) and Beckett (11 months) to the beach that afternoon, but when the practice session ran long the plans were scaled back to a quick trip to the hotel pool. The hard work paid off the next day, as Walker drove the ball beautifully en route to a 67. "It was nice to feel like I was playing golf again," he said.
"He busts his tail," says D.A. Points, Walker's best friend on Tour. "It's not like Jimmy is satisfied because he won one tournament. It's just made him hungrier."
If Walker's motivation wanes, all he has to do is think about the expensive hobbies he and his wife pursue. He is a celebrated astro-photographer (SI, July 3, 2013) who has sunk some $50,000 into his gear, though he's delighted to have recently signed an endorsement deal with Celestron Telescopes. Erin keeps two horses and is a nationally ranked show jumper. "I bring home more trophies than he does," she woofs. In fact, she'll have her own shrine in the house the Walkers are building on nine acres outside of San Antonio. They expect to move in by March, which will cap a tumultuous year and a half that included a high-risk pregnancy that left Erin on bed rest for three months.
With life slowing down a bit, Walker hopes to take time to enjoy all the new opportunities that await. At 47th in the World Ranking he's a lock to get into his first Match Play Championship, and he'll be allowed past the velvet rope and into a World Golf Championship event for the second time—at Doral in March—if he can remain in the top 50. He'll make an inaugural trip to the WGC at Firestone, but the biggest whoop of all is Walker's impending first excursion to the Masters, where he'll be a pretty good dark horse pick. "Augusta is perfect for him—he hits it long and putts great," says Walker's caddie, Andy Sanders. "Of course, that works on most courses."
Walker doesn't try to disguise his ambition, openly coveting a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. (Heading into the T of C, he was seventh on the points list.) "It feels so good to win, you want to do it again and again," he says. He and Erin are already looking forward to a return trip to Kapalua. "I think we'll do things differently," she says. "Next time Jimmy wants to have a little more fun."
"I bring home more trophies than he does," Erin woofs about her career as an equestrian.
"It's not like Jimmy is satisfied because he won one tournament," Points says. "It's made him hungrier."
Photograph by KOHJIRO KINNO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SAND PLAY Aside from his family photo shoot with (from left) Erin, Beckett and Mclain, Walker was all business in Hawaii.
Photograph by KOHJIRO KINNO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STRIKING A solid iron player, Walker made 25 straight cuts during a stretch in 2012 and '13.
DIANA HADSALL (SHOW JUMPING)
FOR FUN A one-time Junior Olympic skier, Erin is also a nationally ranked show jumper, while Jimmy spends his free time snapping photos of galaxies.
JIMMY WALKER (GALAXY)
[See caption above]
Photograph by KOHJIRO KINNO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
UNTIL NEXT TIME The Walkers plan to treat their next trip to Maui as more of a vacation.