IT'S FUNNY what sensory experiences return you to a particular moment. When I think of Jimmy Walker's victory at the 2016 PGA Championship, I smell beer. I was on the edge of the 18th fairway at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., rushing to match Walker's loping stride, when a fan reached out with a cup of brew and accidentally doused my shirt with an overpriced domestic. I smelled like a frat party while typing my story. Walker himself has other memories of that momentous stroll. "I hit a pretty good drive," he says, "and, walking to the ball, I could feel my heart racing a little bit, could feel my palms getting a little sweaty, my breath getting a little short. In a moment like that, you draw on your experience. I focused on controlling what I could control."
Moments earlier Jason Day had sent shock waves through the tournament, stuffing his second shot on the par-5 closing hole to 10 feet and giving himself a chance to pull within one stroke of Walker. Baltusrol shook. "The challenge of a moment like that," says Day, "is you hit a great shot, and the whole place goes crazy, and you're pumping all this adrenaline, and then you have to very quickly settle yourself."
Day's swing is controlled violence, but for him, putting is about reaching a state of calm. After surveying his putt, he closed his eyes and visualized the ball tracking and disappearing into the hole. "I want the feeling of making the putt in my body before I attempt it," he says.
And how does it feel when a do-or-die eagle putt actually falls? "All the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood right up," Day says.
So now the situation for Walker was this: Make the most important par of his life to win his first major. In a funny way Day's eagle helped Walker because it gave him no wiggle room. "I didn't get to relax," he says.
Standing in the fairway, Walker had to decide whether to lay up or go for the green. "I didn't say this, but I figured, 19 times out of 20, you're going to make a five going for the green from right there," he says.
It was the aggressive approach, but an errant 3-wood left him in the rough right of the green, facing a tough pitch over a bunker. The scene around the hole was chaotic, but Walker radiated confidence, by design. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said, "I'm glad you guys think I looked calm. Because that's what I was going for. I felt confident in myself, in my golf swing, my putting. I tried to wrap myself around that—to trust what I was doing."
Walker hit a smart third shot safely onto the green and ultimately faced a three-foot knee-knocker for the win. "I just buried it," he says. "Felt awesome."
His wife, Erin, and two young sons ran onto the green to celebrate. Erin did not play it quite as cool as her husband. "I can't feel my legs!" she said through the tears.
FIVE TO EYE
Names to watch at this week's PGA Championship
Tee to green he is better than ever; if his putter gets hot, he could become the youngest to complete the career Grand Slam, at age 24.
In a year of change—new clubs, new caddie, new wife—he has been middling. But he's won twice at Quail Hollow.
His brand of macho ball striking is perfect for the big, brawny host course. He's ready, with four straight Top 20 finishes in majors.
Unbeatable in March, he's been a nonfactor since, finishing 54th at Birkdale. One last chance for DJ to make the year meaningful.
Having his heart broken at Augusta and at Erin Hills should steel him for another run at that elusive first major. Right?