The popularity of major champions is always easy to determine.
That is, by the scale of plaudits those who fell short will offer to the winner. On Sunday night, social media was awash with high-level praise towards Jimmy Walker for his success at the US PGA Championship. At the venue itself, Jason Day hung around in narrow defeat to make a point of congratulating the 37-year-old. Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who had not even competed at the top of the leaderboard, did likewise.
“The outsiders wouldn’t have him on the list of one of the most known golfers,” Fowler said. “Out here he’s known as one of the best guys.” Spieth was similarly effusive, including when pointing towards Walker’s hobby. “Jimmy is really interesting, he studies astronomy,” said the world No3. “I was quizzing him about it and really interested in it. He is so passionate about it, it’s really cool and kind of puts things in perspective for him, how we’re kind of little things down here. I think that’s going to help him. That’s what it seems like, your place in the universe. Although all the eyes are on you, it’s really nothing. I wish I could think that way.”
What odds were on the hitherto all-conquering Spieth seeking perspective from Walker when 2016 got under way? This is a tribute to the man who as recently as 2008 had to visit qualifying school to retain full status on the PGA Tour. And to Spieth, of course, who appreciates both strength of character and golf.
Day and Walker have more than golf in common. They both travel, with their families, to PGA Tour events in motorhomes. “He’s a tremendous bloke,” said the Australian. “Me and him have been like bus partners for a while now. We text each other all the time about him getting a new bus and I’m showing him mine. We’re just talking about buses all the time. We’re always parked right next to each other, always hanging out. All the major championships, we see each other all the time. So you know, obviously he’s a top bloke.
“He’s not new to winning. He knows how to do it. He’s a very accomplished golfer. I know exactly how Jimmy feels, because I did exactly that [winning a first major] last year. So it was actually quite nice to be able to see him celebrate with his family and friends. I know exactly that feeling and he’s a very deserving winner.”
Walker always backed himself to reach this peak. For evidence of that, the deal the Texan cut with Butch Harmon in 2013 paints a picture. The legendary coach refused to take payment for advice towards the struggling Walker, for which the golfer sent a delivery; a $1,200 bottle of Château Margaux, to be opened when he won a major. On Sunday Harmon offered a message of his own, in person, to Walker: “Go out there and show everyone who Jimmy Walker really is.”
It was soon mission accomplished, with Walker seeing off the challenge of Day in New Jersey. A once steady competitor, and routinely excellent putter, had entered the history books. “That wine is in my cellar,” said Harmon thereafter. “When Jimmy has a party at home in Texas, I’m going there and we are opening it.
“I’ll be honest, he called me in late 2012 and I didn’t even know who Jimmy Walker was. He wanted to come and let me watch him hit some balls for half a day, which he did. I never really got back to him, it was interesting, I was asking friends if they knew who this guy was. His wife, Erin, eventually called me and asked if I wanted to work with Jimmy and if not, just say that was the case. I’d really just been busy, there was nothing more than that to it.
“He is such a brilliant guy. That’s why I’m so emotional with this win, we have become good friends. He had won at every level he ever played, he got out here on the main tour and things didn’t happen then we just gelled. We made some mechanical changes, not a lot of them but I had to make him believe. He wasn’t sure that he was as good as I thought he could be and I told him that. He went out and proved it, he won five times in 18 months.
“He hit this lull at the back end of last year and start of this year, he got down. He lost faith in himself. Things weren’t working and that’s how it goes sometimes. This is a hard league you’re in. I just had to do some work to get his head back in the game.”
The broadest smile of Walker’s media conference came when wine was mentioned. “I gave it to Butch and if he drank it, that’s on him,” Walker said. “But I’ve got another one at home.”
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