The secret weapon behind Jimmy Walker's first major championship
After some hugs, kisses, and plenty of tears, the Walkers walked off Baltusrol’s 18th green at the 98th PGA Championship as one happy family. Moments later, while Jimmy made his first major title official by signing his card, his wife, Erin, shared a long embrace with another woman outside of the scoring tent.
“We’re going to have to double your salary!” Walker exclaimed.
That woman was Julie Elion. And whatever the Walkers are paying her she’s earned every penny -- and then some.
Elion, a sports psychologist based in Washington D.C. is Walker’s mental coach. More impressively, she only recently began working with the 37-year-old tour pro less than six weeks before his breakthrough major win at Baltusrol.
“I knew immediately we had a great rapport, I knew the outcome would be positive,” said Elion, a clinical psychologist, who founded the Center for Athletic Performance Enhancement (CAPE) in 1998. “I texted him, ‘This is going to be good for you. We’re going to get you where you want to go.”
Where Walker wanted to go was to get back to the player who had won five times in the previous two seasons – the most of anyone not named Jordan Spieth or Jason Day. But he needed to find an inner confidence Elion could sense was hiding.
“I knew it was in there,” said Elion, whose impressive list of clients through the years also includes Phil Mickelson. “He’s got a lot of cockiness in some ways. He’s subtle about it, but he knows who he is.”
“I’m trying to bring out what they do have. It’s just layered under crap. I try to pull back those layers and find their best selves.”
What’s more amazing about this relationship is that it almost didn’t happen. Elion, who travels to 25-30 tournaments a year, caps her tour pro clientele at six, but she had an opening with Nick Watney announcing in late March he would sit out the rest of the season with a back injury. And Walker came highly recommended by his physiotherapist, Marc Wahl, and his swing coach, Butch Harmon. “It’s hard to turn down such a good referral.”
Elion says Walker was a bit wary of using a mental coach (She notes that a common hurdle among athletes is getting over the stigma that asking for help makes you look weak) at first, but that in the middle of a disappointing season and coming off a missed cut at the U.S. Open, he was interested in giving it a shot.
Elion believes in really getting to know a client and his personality before getting into sport-specific conversation. An important thing she tries to answer is: “Do I have to get you going or do I have to hold you back?” Walker, she says, certainly fell in the latter category, something that made Elion’s work easier. And so they began.
Walker finished T-16 at Firestone, missed the cut at the British Open (to be fair, he was on the bad end of the draw weather-wise) and was T-14 at the Canadian Open coming into the PGA Championship. There, Elion spoke with him before and after each round at Baltusrol as well as texting him throughout the week. And she was there following him for the final 18 holes on a tense Sunday afternoon.
“We never talked about how he was in the lead,” said Elion, who also coaches several tennis pros and NBA players. “We just went for the goals we were going for. I just wanted him to stay calm and in the place we were shooting for.”
And stay calm he did, even under the immense pressure of playing in the final group on Sunday at a major with two of the best golfers on the planet chasing him. At his winning press conference, a reporter asked Walker about his tranquil demeanor.
"That's huge, because that's what I was going for," Walker replied.
When reached by phone, Elion rattled off a list of 10 things they discussed PGA week, from Walker’s walk (“Even if you have doubts, walk like a champion.”) to his gaze (“Keep looking forward, no looking back.”) to his outlook. The last thing she said to him before he teed off on Sunday afternoon was a question:
Is there anything else you’d rather be doing today?
There wasn’t. Well, “maybe other than his astrophotography,” Elion joked. “But I think being in the final group at a major was a dream for him.”
It had a dream ending as well. Walker shot a bogey-free 67 to beat Jason Day by one shot. It was major No. 1 for Walker, but No. 7 for Elion. So now what?
“There is a temptation when someone wins, they say, ‘I’m OK now,’” said Elion, who has clients of 10-plus years, but estimates a client stays with her on average of two to three years.
Elion is confident Walker, who she describes as being really intelligent and self aware, won’t be one of those people. Breakthroughs aren’t supposed to come this quick and there is always more work to be done.
“What I do is not necessarily based on outward results,” Elion said. “This was wonderful, but most important, he’s feeling better about his game and playing golf. This is the love of his life. That’s my goal. Winning or top 10s is just icing on the cake.”