SPRINGFIELD, NJ—Perseverance. It’s the one key word that summarizes the golf career of Jimmy Walker. Although the resident of Boerne, TX had won five times on the PGA Tour his presence was more of a 2nd tier player — talented for sure but unable to really excel in the biggest of golf stages — the game’s major championships.
That all changed when the 37-year-old former Baylor University star earned his first major golf championship in capturing the 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club by one stroke over world ranked number one Jason Day. Walker’s four round total of 266 bested the previous low four-round total ever shot on Baltusrol Lower by Jack Nicklaus and Lee Janzen who matched 273 totals in the 1980 and 1993 US Opens respectively. Walker’s four round total was also just one stroke higher than the existing record of 265 shot by David Toms in winning the ’01 PGA Championship at The Atlanta Athletic Club.
Day took solo second and his 18th hole eagle added a bit of suspense as Walker was forced to par the closing hole. After hitting his second to the right of the green — Walker pitched onto the putting surface and calmly two-putted for the win from 33 feet with the final putt struck firmly into the hole from three feet away.
Walker knew Sunday would be a long day — 12 hours in total — with 36 holes to play given the postponement of play he faced on Saturday because of persistent drenching rains. Over the last 28 holes he played error free golf — no number beyond par on his scorecard scoring 67-67 for his final two rounds.
Walker won the PGA in a wire-to-wire performance — adding his name to the four others who have done likewise. The last being Tiger Woods in ’06-’07.
In 58 prior rounds in the four major championships Walker had never played a bogey-free round in any. That changed with his stellar play during the final round on the storied Lower Course at Baltusrol hosting its 17th national championship.
Walker showed a tenacious resolve — never relinquishing the lead — even when encountering the likes of Day and Henrik Stenson who was seeking to join Ben Hogan as golfers winning back-to-back majors at age 40 — and the Open Champion remained in contention up until the time he double-bogied the 15th hole.
Walker played his first full PGA Tour season in 2006 — his first win came eight years later in 2014. Four others followed in rapid succession in a two-year period. But he was unable to demonstrate any real presence in any of golf’s four major championships. His best finish had been a tie for 7th place in the ’14 PGA Championship.
The concluding day of play was long for all of the golfers — with play commencing at 7:00 AM Sunday and not finishing till roughly 7:30 PM. If a playoff had been needed – it is debatable whether there would have been sufficient enough light left to squeeze in the three-hole aggregate which the PGA Championship provides for to settle ties. In the 2005 PGA Championship — also played at Baltusrol — inclement weather on the Sunday final round meant a push back to Monday to finalize the outcome won by Phil Mickelson.
Walker’s play prior to Baltusrol in ’16 had been nothing less than woeful given his track record in playing well in early season events. He last top ten finish came with the WGC-Cadillac event this past March. Walker had also missed four cuts this year — three of them coming in key events such as The Players Championship, US Open and The Open Championship.
Starting the final round with a one-stroke lead — Walker gained a bit of breathing room when his closest competitor Day — the defending PGA Champion — played sluggishly for the first few holes — bogeying the 1st and 3rd.
After an even par outward nine — Walker laid back on the long par-4 10th with an iron shot from the tee. Standing 210 yards from the green he attempted to play a fade shot which drifted into a greenside bunker. From that position he deftly holed a 45-foot shot for a birdie. On the par-4 11th Walker hit the fairway and his approach finished roughly 30 feet from the hole. Once again he struck pay dirt — sinking the putt and letting all of his competitors know that only top tier golf would be capable in wrestling the Wanamaker Trophy away from him.
For Day the PGA Championship was something he was looking to win to add to his impressive ’16 season which includes three wins. The Aussie was also seeking to be only the second golfer to win successive PGA Championships in stroke play — with Tiger Woods being the first. Unfortunately, his pedestrian iron play meant longer putts for birdie tries. Time after time Day left himself 40 feet or more to negotiate on the Lower’s greens. Day would make clutch par saves to keep himself within hailing distance of Walker but after missing a 10-foot birdie on the long par-5 17th which Walker would birdie just a few moments later — the margin was three strokes and it appeared the Championship would be a foregone conclusion with his name etched on the base of the trophy.
Day had other plans — following an iron off the tee at the par-5 18th — he blistered a two-iron from 257 yards to 10-feet for eagle. Day made the clutch putt and the former lead of three was reduced to one. Walker found the fairway at the 18th and opted to play a 3-metal which he eventually pushed to the right of the green into high rough. After surveying the situation Walker gamely pitched out of the grass and over an intervening greenside bunker to 33 feet where he ended all potential playoff drama with an airtight two-putt.
Walker had enough strength after such a grueling day to hoist the Wanamaker and add his name to the roster of major championship victors. “There was nothing easy about the day — really about the week, for that matter,” Walker said. “Especially coming down the last hole.”
Given his win at Baltusrol Walker elevates himself into a likely Ryder Cup slot for Team USA in late September at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. Perseverance. Jimmy Walker had to demonstrate it given the lackluster play he has shown prior to the week at Baltusrol. It is his resolve to fight on that has rewarded him handsomely with a major championship title.
19th Hole Summaries —
* RAIN, RAIN AND EVEN MORE RAIN
This year’s PGA was plagued by persistent rains — the worst coming on Saturday’s 3rd round when play was suspended for the day at 2:15 PM. This necessitated a 36-hole conclusion for nearly all the competitors. Fortunately, through the herculean efforts of the grounds crew the event was able to finish on Sunday much to the happiness of the 3,500 volunteers and CBS-Sports which clearly wanted to avoid a Monday conclusion and its related low ratings.
* CLEAN AND PLACE AT A MAJOR FOR THE FIRST TIME
No major championship had ever deviated from the golf axiom of “playing the ball as it lies.” Initially, the brain trust of the PGA stated that they intended to continue accordingly. After being doused by even more water Saturday night a decision was made to provide for cleaning and placing the ball on all areas at fairway height or lower. Given the circumstances that Baltusrol Lower would have caused endless mud balls when impacting the soggy turf the PGA of America made the only fair call it could given the circumstances faced. No doubt traditionalists must have cringed when watching players put their hands on the ball before the putting green.
* LEADERS NOT REPAIRED FOR FINAL ROUND
Given the impact of the rains that took place the PGA opted not to repair players based on their score after the 3rd round. Would that have impacted the final outcome? No one will be able to say with certainty since if groups were repaired then Walker would have been with Day in the final twosome.
* SIXTH TIME’S THE CHARM
Jimmy Walker won the PGA Championship today in his sixth career appearance, just like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day did in 2014 and ’15, respectively. Larry Nelson (1981) and Raymond Floyd (1969) also won the PGA Championship in their sixth attempt.
* FIRST TIME’S THE CHARM
With Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, and now Jimmy Walker, having seized their initial Major Championships this year, note that the last time that the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and the PGA Championship were all won by first-time major champions in the same season was in 2011 (Charl Schwartzel/Masters, Rory McIlroy/U.S. Open, Darren Clarke/Open Championship, Keegan Bradley/PGA Championship).
* BALTUSROL’S HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE
Including Jimmy Walker’s win today, 16 out of 17 Championships conducted at Baltusrol since 1901 have been won by Americans — the lone exception coming in 1903 — when a Scot by the name of Willie Anderson won the U.S. Open on Baltusrol’s Old Course.
* SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST
Dating to Davis Love III’s 1997 win at Winged Foot, the PGA Champion has emerged from the final round’s last pairing 18 times in 21 years. Jimmy Walker played in the final group 43 today with Robert Streb.
* SECOND TO ONE
Jason Day’s runner-up finish today was the second of his career in a major championship. He finished alone in second at the 2011 U.S. Open (won by Rory McIlroy). Day has also twice finished in a tie for second place (2011 Masters/Winner: Charl Schwartzel, 2013 U.S. Open/Winner: Justin Rose).
* SOONER OR LATER FOR WALKER
Jimmy Walker and Bob Tway, each born in Oklahoma City, are the only PGA Champions born in the state of Oklahoma. Other Oklahomans to win major championships are Tommy Bolt (1958 U.S. Open) and Orville Moody (1969 U.S. Open).
*4 X 60s
Five players this week completed four rounds in the 60s at Baltusrol: Jimmy Walker (65-66-68-67), Jason Day (68-66-67-67), Hideki Matsuyama (69-67-67-68), Paul Casey (69-69-68-67) and Gregory Bourdy (69-68-69-69). That matches the single-year mark shared by the 1995 and 2014 Championships.
* THE 2017 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
Next year’s event will be played at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, NC.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.