SAN MARTIN, Calif. – The victor’s life always changes drastically after that first PGA TOUR win. For much of this week, it looked like a globetrotting young prospect, making just his fourth TOUR start, would win for the first time in his home country. Instead, years of frustration were erased as the sun set behind the foothills surrounding CordeValle Golf Club.
Jimmy Walker donned the navy-blue champion’s blazer and lifted the silver trophy that goes to the Frys.com Open champion. Also among his spoils was a yellow flag that represented one of many doors that had been unlocked for the 34-year-old.
Walker shot 17-under 267 over four days in Northern California to win his first PGA TOUR title in his 188th career start. It was his first victory in six years; the last one came in a Web.com Tour event that no longer exists.
“I've gone through everything,” he said. “I've played -- not on every tour, but on a lot of tours. I won on a lot of tours. This is kind of the final steppingstone.”
Walker couldn’t have asked for a better start in the opening event of the 2013-14 PGA TOUR Season. Players jokingly greeted each other with, “Happy New Year,” on the range this week. He’s the first leader of the FedExCup race, earning 500 points for his win. This was the first year the Frys.com Open – and the rest of the TOUR’s fall events – award full FedExCup points. This new distinction also meant Walker earned his first Masters invitation, signified by the yellow flag he received at the trophy presentation.
He’s been to the hallowed grounds of Augusta National before, but never in competition. He played there several winters ago with his father, Jim, and a member, Paul Sarvadi. One of the rounds came on a cold, rainy day. “I think I that's the only place on the planet you will go out and play when it's 38 and drizzling,” he said.
It should be warmer in April. He’ll soon find out.
Walker started the Frys.com Open’s final round three shots behind 54-hole leader Brooks Koepka, a 23-year-old Floridian who’d won three times on the Challenge Tour, Europe’s version of the Web.com Tour, in 2013.
Walker was four shots back after Koepka’s birdie at No. 6, but the deficit was just one shot at the turn. Walker birdied Nos. 8 and 9 and Koepka missed a 3-foot par putt on the par-5 ninth, the first of a handful of short misses that would keep him from victory.
It is the rare player who avoids tough losses en route to that first victory. Walker, the 2004 Web.com Tour Player of the Year, had his first career runner-up finish earlier this year at The Greenbrier Classic. A 1-over 71 in the final round left him two shots behind winner Jonas Blixt.
Now he's a winner at the site of Blixt's first TOUR victory a year ago.
“I wouldn't take back anything I've ever done or anything I've ever gone through to get here,” Walker said. “Everything you do, hopefully you can learn from and build on it. That's what I try to do. “
Walker’s win also earned him his first invitation to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He’s never played a World Golf Championship; that will change, as well.
“You want to be playing in the big stuff,” Walker said. “I want to play against the world’s best.”
Koepka already has played around the world; he estimates he’s played in 15 countries this year, mostly on Europe’s developmental tour. His three 2013 Challenge Tour victories earned him European Tour status for the remainder of this year and 2014. He hopes to earn PGA TOUR status, as well. A victory would’ve given him a TOUR card immediately.
Bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17 kept him from a fifth professional victory, this one in California after wins in Scotland, Spain and Italy. Koepka had proven himself as a closer -- his average margin of victory in his four Challenge Tour victories was 5.75 strokes -- but he pulled his tee shot on the par-3 16th and hit 3-wood into the water on the drivable, par-4 17th.
“Things just weren’t going my way,” said Koepka, who started the week at No. 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I didn’t execute the shots. … I just didn’t make the shots I needed to win.”
He pulled several short putts Sunday after ranking fourth in the field in strokes gained-putting through three rounds.
“Certain parts of my game, I need to work on,” Koepka said. “These 5-footers under pressure, I think all of them were missed left. I don’t know if it has anything to do with (my) stroke. … Learn from it and move on and everything should be good.”
He didn’t leave here empty-handed, though. His finish earned him a spot in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, which begins Thursday at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas. His impressive play this week should garner additional sponsor exemptions this season as he pursues TOUR status.
While Koepka was hurt by short misses, Walker gained confidence after holing two long putts early in the final round. He made his only bogey of the final round by holing an 18-foot putt on No. 5, then made a 28-foot par putt on the next hole.
“I had some gut checks on 5 and 6 and pulled through 'em,” Walker said. “That was big. That really helped propel me through the rest of the day.”
And take his career to a new level.