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The Loop

The Loop

In Jimmy Walker's breakthrough, another Jason Day almost

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July 31, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Give him a cowboy hat, black. He came to work wearing all black, gunslinger black. He’s a bowlegged Okie living in Texas who, to put it in manly terms, clanks when he walks. Talk about brass, he twice backed off a little putt on the 17th hole because the guy ahead caused an explosion of gallery noise. Then he rolled that one in, cool. And on the last hole, with the other guy ratcheting up the drama, Jimmy Walker just stood there, cool, unblinking, waiting his turn to be the hero.

He had to get down in three from the right of the 18th green. Easy, except for the moment. Just gouge it out of the bluegrass tangle so far below the green he could see only the top of the flagstick. Just pitch it safely to 30 feet. So the first putt went three feet past. Now he had three feet to win by a shot. Three feet? Tap in, right. But choke and it’s a playoff. Three feet? Tell me, pardner, could you even breathe over a three-footer to win a major championship?

In a year when every major championship was won by a man who had never won a major championship, golf is suddenly unpredictable fun.

Jimmy Walker is 37 years old and he has been on the PGA Tour 10 years and he played 187 tournaments before he won one and he played in 17 majors before he won this one, the 98th PGA Championship. He won it going 14-under par on rounds of 65, 66, and 68 before adding, on Sunday afternoon at Baltusrol Golf Club, a 67. And he needed that 67 to beat that other guy, the young Australian, Jason Day, the world’s No. 1 and leader of a couple dozen major-tournament contenders that will shape the game for years.

Certainly, Day’s performance here -- 68, 65, 67, 67 -- capped by an astounding eagle on the par-5 18th – a 268-yard iron off the tee, a 240-yard iron to the elevated green -- a 15-foot putt downhill . . . wait . . . wait . . . what Day did on the 18th deserves narration by the man himself: “Going down 18, the play, you think, is to hit driver. But I could hit a 2-iron down there, especially with the tee up. I hit a great 2-iron down there and I just said, ‘Let’s just try and finish off with a bang, give him something to think about and just keep pushing forward.’”

In short, Day’s performance here was one more certification that his PGA championship of last summer was only the beginning of years of brilliance in the majors. And even a cursory look at the scoreboard here this week shows names we should note for future reference:

Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama, Emiliano Grillo, Branden Grace, Kevin Kisner -- all in addition to the famous names, McIlroy and Fowler, Spieth and the Johnsons Dustin and Zach, Stenson and Kaymer, Rose and Scott, and always remembering Phil, who started this PGA with a triple bogey and finished it with back-to-back birdies, after which the old man said, as he always does, this time with reason, “I’m optimistic heading into these next few events because I’m starting to hit shots.”

In a year when every major championship was won by a man who had never won a major championship, golf is suddenly unpredictable fun. As dispiriting as Jordan Spieth’s meltdown at Augusta was, the Masters gave us yet another international star, England’s Danny Willett. At our Open, Dustin Johnson gave mortals a demonstration of how good he can be. No one, not even Phil at his ineffable best, was better than Sweden’s Henrik Stenson at the Open, and maybe no one was ever better anywhere. To add Jimmy Walker to the list of first-time major champions is not to prove that these guys are so good that anyone can win any week but to prove that they're so good that anyone can win any week even when they’re not thinking of winning -- as Walker himself said.

Asked if he could imagine, a couple weeks ago, this happening, Walker said, “No. No, I couldn’t, honestly.” Maybe two, three years ago -- when he ended that 0-for-187 streak by winning five times in two seasons -- then, yes, maybe then he was good enough to win a major. But now? It had been a long time since he had won, a year and more, and he had sought help from the swing coach Butch Harmon.

“I just had not quite played as well as I would have liked to this year,” Walker said before adding, “But I knew it was close. Felt some things were clicking last week.” He called the victory “surreal” and said, “God, just to be in it and be there and have a chance and then to finish it off . . . .”

When Walker stood eight feet below the 18th green, needing to get down in three to win, at least one person knew he would do it.

“It was going to be very difficult for him to bogey from there,” Jason Day said. The Days and Walkers, the men, their wives and children, are traveling buddies who park their motor homes alongside each other. “I mean, stranger things have happened. But he’s won plenty of times. He knows how to do it. He’s a very accomplished golfer.”

So, from the junk to 30 feet. A putt to three feet. And Jimmy Walker said, “Really cool way to finish. Making a putt like that, to win, right in the middle, was just awesome.”

Add Jimmy Walker to the crowd, then, the crowd that will make major championships so much fun, a crowd perhaps best defined by a Jason Day soliloquy after this PGA when he tried to explain why four second-place finishes in majors have left him unsatisfied . . .

“I just want to win, that’s all. And the big stuff, the major championships, the Players, the WGCs, I get a real big kick out of playing well in those . . . For some reason, I just enjoy the moment of trying to step up and hit shots like I did on 18. I couldn’t even tell you why I love competing and playing in them, but I just don’t know why the finishes have finished the way they have. I would have liked to have, instead of the four seconds, I would have liked to have five majors.”

They’ll come, and we’ll be there to see them.