Best American golfer? Jimmy Walker is in the mix

Jimmy Walker has been winning this year, which puts him on the shortlist of Masters favorites.

Believe it or not, two-thirds of the top 27 players in today’s Official World Golf Ranking are American, and each one seems to have carved out his own distinct identity. There’s the unorthodox, long-hitting Bubba Watson, top-ranked at No. 3; the superstar-on-deck, boy-next-door in Jordan Spieth; and perhaps the most naturally gifted player in the world not to hold a major title, Dustin Johnson.

On down the line, there’s Rickie (no last name required), who tore it up with four top 5s at the majors last season, and Matt Kuchar, Mr. Top 10, the human ATM. Don’t forget fireball Patrick Reed, whose short sleeves, ruddy cheeks and steely play in the chill of a Scotland autumn at the Ryder Cup impressed us all, or old warhorse Jim Furyk.

There was a seemingly endless stretch when Tiger Woods was dominating and the prospect of naming the top American player of the day wasn’t even a conversation to be entered. Pull up a stool at any 19th hole today, and you might get four or five beers and lots of heated debate out of it.

The American yet to be named in this mix? You might not even have noticed that we wheeled right past him. Jimmy Walker. Oh, right. Remember him? He’s now 10th in the world. His identifier? Well, in an era deep with world talent in which it’s quite difficult to win, he’s been winning. A whole bunch, in fact.

If Walker isn’t on your shortlist of Masters favorites, he should be. A lot of betting houses still have him at 25-to-1 or higher to win, and at those odds, he’s a bargain. In 37 starts, he’s won five times (compared to 0-for-187 to begin his career) and has 15 top-10 finishes. In those 37 starts since the beginning of the 2013-14 wraparound season (which opened with his first PGA Tour victory, at Frys.com), Walker has earned $9.25 million, or more than $250,000/start.

Comparatively, in looking at hot runs, Watson has won three times and earned $8.8 million in 24 starts since the start of 2014, or $367,158/start; Reed has won four times in 41 starts dating to the 2013 Wyndham Championship, earning $175,166/start; and Rory McIlroy has won three times and earned $8.2 million in 18 PGA Tour events beginning with last year’s Honda. That’s $459,118/start.

In winning near home at the Valero Texas Open, Walker drove it very well early in the week and putted well all week. That’s a pretty nice formula to be bringing to Augusta, where Walker visited the last few days (he pulled out of this week’s Shell Houston Open Tuesday, saying he wasn’t feeling well, but promised to return in future years). Here’s another good indicator on Walker: Last year, he played the big events well. He was T-8 in his Masters debut, finished top 10 at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, and was T-26 in his second Open Championship start. At The Players, a stern test, he tied for sixth.

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Most will blindly file Walker, 36, into the late-bloomer category. That’s fine. It took him 102 starts on the PGA Tour to record his first top 10 at the 2008 Buick Open, and he won his first PGA Tour title at 34. He made his Masters debut only last April. But he had been on a nice track a decade ago, at 25 becoming the second-youngest player to lead the Web.com Tour in earnings (only Stewart Cink, who led the 1996 Nike Tour at age 23, was younger).

Excited for the 2005 season, Walker was hitting balls getting ready at the Sony Open in Hawaii that January when he took one swing “and it felt like somebody jammed an ice pick in my neck.” He had a bulging disk, and he dealt with neck issues for several years. (Walker has worked with a trainer on Tour the last five years to keep his neck, shoulders and body loose.) Not until 2009, when he held onto the 125th and final PGA Tour card by shooting 68-69 on the weekend at Disney, did Walker start to find his stride.

Nearly three years ago, Butch Harmon hosted a dinner at a Charlotte steakhouse for about 15 writers to promote a new teaching DVD he was releasing. It was a terrific evening, with Harmon fielding all sorts of questions about students he once had (Greg Norman, Tiger Woods) and currently was teaching (Phil Mickelson et al). At one point, Harmon was asked to name a player who might not be on anyone’s radar who could break through soon and be very good.

He didn’t hesitate.“Jimmy Walker,” Harmon said. To Harmon’s credit, Walker was ranked 118th in the world at the time.

Later that summer, Walker texted Harmon. Harmon asked around, took him on as a student, and the two were off and running. Walker was pleased with his 2013 season, when he finished 36th in the FedEx Cup race and earned more than $2.1 million; Harmon told Walker he wasn’t pleased, because Walker didn’t win, and winning is everything. Starting in the fall of 2013, Walker would start winning.

The Valero Texas Open ran his total to five and counting.

Walker, for his part, had a difficult time putting into words why the light switch has flipped on and suddenly he finds himself hoisting trophies. Health, for one thing. Hitting greens, for another. He was 136th in greens in regulation as recently as 2011 (63.9 percent) and 21st this season (69.7 percent).

At 36, Walker has more confidence than ever.

“Who knows?” Walker said when asked about the turnaround in his fortunes. “If you could put your finger on it, we’d all do it more. It’s timing, it’s good play, it’s being prepared, it’s being ready when the door opens to step through. It’s hard to do. . . . If there was that magic formula, somebody would be rich.”

In that department, he seems to be doing OK. Famously, Harmon has held onto a bottle of 2000 Chateau Margaux given to him by Walker. He said he plans to open it when Walker wins his first major.

He might not have to wait too long.

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