April 10, 2014
By Art Stricklin
AUGUSTA, Ga. - Jimmy Walker is making history this week.
As only the second Baylor golfer to ever play in the prestigious Masters, the former BU All-American is concentrating on keeping the golfing good times going while trying to add some Augusta green to his Baylor green and gold.
After winning All-America honors and helping the Baylor golf team win its only Big 12 championship to date, Walker turned pro at the 2001 U.S. Open and shot a scorching 65 in his second professional round at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.
Since then, he has embraced the theory that pro golf for most players is a marathon rather than a sprint.
But after winning his first PGA Tour event - in his 188th start - last fall at the Frys.com Open and finally earning a Masters invitation, Walker has been in a full-out sprint ever since.
Adding wins in Hawaii and Pebble Beach, Calif., Walker leads the PGA Tour with right at $4 million in earnings and is also atop the FedEx Cup standings. He also became only the fourth player to win three of the first seven tournaments of the year, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval. Talk about a fab foursome.
Walker has already played four practice rounds at famed Augusta National Golf Club before the big week arrived and bought enough souvenirs as special Christmas gifts. Now, he is focused on not just entering his first Masters tournament, but competing and even adding another win to his already historic season.
"One of the things you have to do is tell yourself it's just another tournament. It's a great feeling to go there," he said, "but after playing and experiencing all of that, you have to go out and play like you can."
The only other Baylor player to earn an invite to the Masters was then-Baylor player and later head coach Tim Hobby, who got into the hallowed tournament in 1990 as a result of winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Hobby missed the cut, but still got the chance for a practice round with Hall of Famer Gary Player.
Walker, who lives just outside San Antonio with his wife, Erin, and two children, is not content to just make memories this week among the Georgia pines. He wants to make history.
One major advantage Walker will have in the season's first major championship is the presence of his teacher, Butch Harmon, who helped guide Woods to a Masters title and has been given a lot of credit by Walker for his recent victory parade.
Walker also will have his family with him, along with his dad, Jim, who will help caddy for him in Wednesday's traditional Par-3 championship.
"It will be great to have my dad as my caddy," Walker said. "We played a lot of golf together when I was a kid, and I'm glad he can be here for this."
He will also have a few friends there, including Aaron Pellegrom, a former Baylor teammate who now lives in Atlanta, Ga.
"I still keep up with all the guys I played with. We are still close," Walker said. "But now with Facebook, you can find anybody and anybody can find you. Since I started winning a lot more, people are recognizing me and wanting to see me on the golf course. You get pulled in different directions, but it's a good thing."
To succeed at the Maters, a place where he has never played professionally and a tournament which hasn't been won by a first-timer since Fuzzy Zoeller came the first and only one in 1979, Walker plans to do many of the same things that helped him win the three titles earlier this season after none in his first decade as a pro.
Walker has proven to be a long and accurate striker of the ball off the tee and reliable around the green with his chipping and putting. But Harmon, who has worked with golf's greatest players over the last three decades, also instilled a healthy self-belief that Walker is as good as any player on the course.
"I want to keep playing well and keep it up," Walker said. "Nobody wants to play bad. I want to keep it going."
That belief was affirmed when Walker sank a clutch five-foot putt on the 18th to win at Pebble Beach this year; and when he rallied from nearly missing the cut at his hometown Valero Texas Open to finish in the top 20.
At last week's Shell Houston Open, Walker shot 7-under-par 65 in Friday's second round and had another top-25 finish, confirming that he is ready for his first tournament trip down Magnolia Lane.
"I felt I'm in more control of my game this year. I've been driving and putting it with more confidence," he said.
Like most pro golfers, Walker looks forward and not back and never wonders why he played in 180-plus PGA Tour events before finally breaking through to win three of the first seven this season and earn his first Masters invite.
"I'm not sure why, but once you win, you can see why people want to win again and how it gets easier," Walker said. "I don't know if it ever gets easier, but you do feel more comfortable doing it."
Thanks to his tournament victories and fully-exempt status for the next two years, Walker is able to set his schedule and is hoping to have some extended down time this fall to possibly return for a Baylor football game at the new McLane Stadium.
Walker attended the Bears' 2011 Alamo Bowl victory over Washington in his hometown of San Antonio in what turned out to be Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III's final game. But because of his busy tournament schedule, he hasn't had a chance to get back to campus recently to take in a football game.
Now, he's busy fulfilling a long-held career goal of making the trip to golf's most historic venue and its most prestigious tournament. Walker is paired with Rickie Fowler and Graeme McDowell for the first two rounds and will tee off at 8:35 a.m. CDT Thursday.
"It will be a great week, but I want to play well; don't treat it any more special than I would any other tournament," he said. "It's another week to play well, and that's what I want to do.