For the fifth consecutive major championship we have a first-time winner. On Sunday, Jimmy Walker captured the PGA Championship at Baltusrol by firing four rounds in the 60’s on his way to a 14-under, 266. Two of those rounds came in a marathon final day.
If most of the golf world turned its back on Rio this summer, they got a good taste of the Brazilian climate in North Jersey. Heat, humidity and heavy rainfall threw the schedule into chaos. Most of the third round was washed out completely, which meant that the leaders, Walker chief among them, had to play 36 holes on Sunday just to finish on time.
In a way, this was a perfect scenario for Walker, who in the last four seasons has built a reputation as one of the more even-keeled players in golf. He won three times in 2014 and twice more last season before tinkering with some swing changes in 2016. But because of his late breakthrough—Walker’s best finish prior to 2014 was a T2 at the 2013 Greenbrier—many people wrote Walker off as a flash in the pan, a veteran player who happened to find his game in his mid-30’s with little staying power.
Indeed, the Texan struggled to make his mark at majors. For whatever reason he peaked in the early months only to fade during the summer. In fact, all five of his previous wins came before April, while his best finish at a major was T7 at the 2014 PGA.
Maybe that explains his sudden resurgence this weekend. Working with Butch Harmon, Walker tightened up his swing the first several months of 2016. In other words, July became his new March. He demonstrated his new found stroke on his way to a 65-66 start to reach 9-under before the weekend. Then the rains came.
With an effective day off—Walker didn’t even tee off on Saturday—he awoke early Sunday morning to advantages he hadn’t planned for. Due to the soggy course, the PGA instituted preferred lie, which allowed players free drops in the fairways. Secondly, the players chasing Walker had to double their press, especially when he delivered a two-under, 68 in the morning session.
By the time the stars just behind Walker reached the afternoon, they were tired. Jason Day, who trailed by one, bogeyed two of his first three holes. He responded well and sent tremors through Baltusrol with a brilliant eagle at the last, but it was too late. Henrik Stenson, coming off his first career major, struggled to build on his morning 67. He doubled the 15th to fall out of contention then failed to birdie either of the closing par-5’s. On another day, perhaps Hideki Matsuyama would have lifted the Wanamaker Trophy. He somehow delivered a 68 to finish T4 despite seemingly missing every short putt he had. Branden Grace, another T4, ran out of steam. So too, did Brooks Koepka who was playing on a bum ankle. His 70 to tie Matsuyama and Grace at 9-under was nothing short of heroic.
The players resembled pitchers deep into a start on three-day’s rest. Just as a hurler might start leaving fastballs up in the zone or throwing breaking balls that don’t break, the rest of the pack behind Walker lipped out putts or pulled them offline completely. When fatigue is a factor, the smallest details become the difference makers.
Through it all, the one man who seemed to be in control of all aspects of his game was the one at the top. Not needing the birdies that others sought, Walker methodically walked from tee to fairway to green. He parred the front nine then all but sealed the championship with two birdies to start the back. The first came off a spectacular bunker shot at the 10th, the second a center-cut putt on 11. Still, Day was making a charge and Walker needed one more confident, controlled stroke to put the championship away. He found it on 17. Walker’s knee-knocker birdie caught the lip of the cup and dropped in. With that putt, he had a three-shot lead on Day going into the last. Not even a Day eagle and a wayward approach from Walker threatened the tournament.
For all the talk about first-time winners, we’ve rarely had a streak of such worthy candidates. Day, of course, got the movement started with his dominance at Whistling Straits a year ago. Danny Willett, an up-and-comer on the European Tour, took advantage of Jordan Spieth’s collapse at Augusta. Then you have the trio of Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Walker. Including their recent breakthroughs, that group has combined for 21 PGA Tour victories. Stenson has 11 more on the European Tour.
These are serious players, Walker among them. This weekend he solidified his spot as one of the best golfers of the post-Tiger era. And given his wonderful display, there may be more to come.