CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Just two months away from the season’s final major championship – the PGA Championship – defending champion Jimmy Walker paid a visit to August’s host venue, Quail Hollow Club.
While many changes have been made to Quail Hollow to prepare for the 2017 PGA Championship many of the world’s best players are familiar with the course. It's been a regular stop on the PGA Tour since 2003.
“Quail Hollow should prove to be a great venue for a major championship,” Walker said. “The finish is amazing and I'm sure it will be firm and fast with the grass changes they have made. I haven't given it a ton of thought so far. Just getting healthy has been my major concern.”
Ah, the health. It’s been an understandably worrisome last several months for Walker.
Having not felt quite like himself since Thanksgiving, Walker said during Masters week that tests revealed he has Lyme disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 329,000 cases of Lyme disease occur each year. It's transmitted by tick bites and produces flu-like symptoms.
Since his diagnosis, Walker has been doing everything he can to get better.
The diagnosis has limited Walker’s starts in 2017, but he’s been solid when he has played, with 11 cuts made in 14 starts, including six top 25s.
“The golf game, we’re just going to have to see where that’s at,” Walker said. “I haven’t been able to do a lot because I couldn’t really be out in the sun, which is why I’ve taken some time off. ‘The want’ is getting back. Health-wise, I’m starting to feel pretty good. The energy levels are feeling like they’re back up. I’ve only been off the medication for a week, so time will tell if it did its job. Hopefully it did. If it didn’t, we might have to do some other stuff. As of right now, I feel pretty good.”
The 2016 PGA Championship victory was the paramount moment for Walker in his career to this point, as it would be for any player, but it might have been a tinge more special for the Texan.
Walker, you see, isn’t your typical PGA Tour professional. And his path certainly isn’t that of your typical major champion.
Walker didn’t play his first full season on the PGA Tour until 2006 at age 27. In 21 starts that year, he made the cut just nine times and finished inside the top 25 once.
The avid astrophotographer – with photos that have been featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (see, not your typical PGA Tour pro) – played in 187 Tour events before collecting his first victory at the 2013 Frys.com Open.
And after that, it was gangbusters. Walker quickly began to shine as bright as those stars in his mind-blowing astronomy photos.
Once he snagged that first victory at age 34, Walker won three times in his next eight starts.
To date, Walker has six PGA Tour wins. The last, however, was the sweetest – his first of the major variety – the 2016 PGA Championship at famed Baltusrol Golf Club.
It was there in Springfield, N.J., last August, where Walker was able to hold off a late charge by 2015 PGA Champion Jason Day, which included a final-hole eagle, to win by a single shot. Walker’s wire-to-wire triumph made 2016 the first time since 2011 where all four major winners were first-time major winners.
Walker always knew any major would be special, but the magnitude of claiming the Wanamaker Trophy truly sunk in when he received something in the mail.
“Winning a major gives you more stature in the world of golf,” Walker said. “Being able to play all the majors for five years is a nice perk for sure.
“But,” Walker said, “My cool moment was receiving a hand-written note from Jack Nicklaus. Very cool. When one of the greatest players of all time takes the time to hand-write you a note and talk about your win – and he can relate having won two majors there – is very cool. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. I wrote him back and he was greatly appreciative of that and we’ve been able to chat a few times since. I had dinner with him and Barbara about a month ago. They’re super people.”
The other sweet perk that came with winning the PGA Championship was that it secured Walker’s spot on his second consecutive Ryder Cup USA Team in September at Hazeltine.
Walker was one of the few bright spots for the Americans during a tough loss to Europe at Gleneagles back in 2014. This time around, not only would Walker have a chance to avenge that loss and help the U.S. win for the first time since 2008, but he’d also be able to try and do it on home soil.
And that’s what happened.
Walker and his 11 teammates had a convincing 17-11 win over the Europeans.
“The major win was huge for getting me on the winning Cup team,” he said. “Having been on both sides now, I can say winning one is a lot more fun than losing one. I’ve done both now. You definitely want to be winning. It was a blast. And especially having it here with all the people pulling for us, it felt like they were part of it. It was pretty special.”
Before that is this extra special title defense at Quail Hollow.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he said. “We’ll see when we get here. I haven’t been thinking about it a lot because I’ve just been trying to get healthy again and get my head right and just try and start feeling good again and get some positive mojo going again. It’s been pretty tough. I’ve been in such a bad mood from feeling terrible and it just hadn’t been fun. I’m just looking forward to getting healthy and being 100 percent. That’s the goal right now.”
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