SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Hard work really does pay off, which is something Jimmy Walker doubted all year but always believed down deep in his heart. Now the message is carved in silver, on the Wanamaker Trophy he won Sunday at the PGA Championship.
He was a wire-to-wire champion, having held at least a share of first place all the way from the first round Thursday — after which he reflected on his rough 2016 and said, “Sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off” — through the thrilling finish of 36 holes Sunday, after his friend Jason Day pushed him by making eagle on No. 18.
Walker summoned all the skill and resolve he had built up in decades of work and made a par 5 on Baltusrol Golf Club’s final hole, sinking a three-foot putt to end up at 14 under par and, at age 37, win his first major title.
“I felt confident. I felt confident in myself. I felt confident in what I was doing. Kind of tried to wrap myself around that, that everything was feeling good, and to go with that,” said the resident of Boerne, Texas, after becoming the fourth first-time major champion this season, following Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson.
“It’s surreal. I mean, it really is,” he said after shooting 2-under-par 68 in the morning and 67 in the afternoon of the rain-delayed championship. “Everything I’ve done up to this point helped this happen.”
That includes going 0-for-187 before finally achieving the first of his five victories on the PGA Tour. It goes back even further, to when he was playing the developmental Web.com Tour and caught the eye of a volunteer scorekeeper. She eventually married him.
“He just didn’t play that well that week [at the Web.com event] but he kept his cool,” said his wife, Erin, who rushed the 18th green with their two sons after he made the final putt. “I was an athlete growing up and that was just impressive to me because I know how hard competitive sports are. I was a ski racer and I’m still a competitive show jumper. That’s what I think it was. He was so level-headed, and I appreciate that a lot.”
Walker was level-headed Sunday, too, making pars on the first nine holes of the last round. But this is the PGA, not the U.S. Open, and a player needs birdies. He sank a bunker shot for a birdie 3 on the 10th, then made another birdie on No. 11 to go two strokes up on Day, the defending champion and his family’s regular neighbor at SUV parks.
The margin was two as Walker walked to the par-5 17th green, and he curled in a nine-footer for birdie just before Day got the crowd on 18 fired up with a 13-foot, 11-inch eagle putt. “Wouldn’t expect anything less,” Walker said.
Patience kept Walker going through a rough year (he hadn’t finished in the top 10 since March). Poise helped him through anxious moments on No. 18, when he hit his second shot into thick greenside rough and pitched out 33 feet past the hole. But he has faced pressure before — once making a five-foot putt to keep his PGA Tour card. His game has been refined under Butch Harmon, who swore he would not open the $1,200 bottle of Chateau Margaux that Walker gave him until he won a major.
It’s time to pop the cork. It was time to celebrate last night for Walker’s practice buddies, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who stayed around to watch the finish.
“He’s one of the best guys I know, on or off the course,” Fowler said. “To see him struggle and knowing what that feels like . . . this is huge for him.”
Erin was emotional because she knew how frustrating this season has been for her husband.
“He deserves it. It has been a grind,” she said. “He is extremely humble, he’s an extremely hard worker. He has been working hard all year long and felt like it wasn’t paying off. I guess if you’re patient enough . . . ”