Shooting the stars
When he's not winning PGA TOUR events, FedExCup points leader Jimmy Walker is capturing images of space
March 25, 2014
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
When he's not winning PGA TOUR events, FedExCup points leader Jimmy Walker is capturing images of space
It starts, as it does with most young boys, with a telescope in the backyard. Jimmy Walker's days as a youth are filled with practicing and playing golf, but at night, he goes out back, peers into his telescope and gazes at the moon, the stars, the nearest planets. "But mostly the moon," he recalls.
His fascination is not just of the distance between himself and the celestial bodies hovering overhead. For the young Walker, the sky is a beautiful piece of art, one that leaves a lasting image.
Now spin forward to his early 30s. Walker, having parlayed his passion for golf into a career on the PGA TOUR, still has his passion for the night sky. So he asks his wife Erin to give him a telescope for Christmas. She obliges. A few weeks later, having spent many hours enjoying the stars, he buys a camera and sticks it on the telescope. The learning curve is steep; his telescope's a little too big and the earth's rotation proves challenging as he sets the mount to track the sky.
Like his golf game, though, he figures hard work and practice will eventually pay off. "It was just a little bit of trial and error with equipment," Walker says, "and then I really kind of got hooked on it."
He'll never be able to touch the stars, but he can sure capture them on film.
Spin forward again, this time to February 2014. Walker is now one of the world's elite golfers, a three-time TOUR winner and the FedExCup points leader. It's the night before his opening-round match of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, and just like in his younger days, Walker has finished practicing and gone out to peer at the sky -- this time, from the University of Arizona's Flandrau Observatory.
Walker leans in and looks through the eyepiece of the 16-inch reflecting telescope pointed out of the observatory's dome. The Tucson sky above is bright and inviting.
One of Flandrau's volunteers, David Acklam, has made a special trip to open the building and indulge Walker's interest in astronomy. It's rare that such a notable athlete stops by on a Tuesday evening for a little star-gazing.
Acklam takes out his smart phone. He wants to document the occasion with a photo. "My son won't believe who his old man had looking through the telescope tonight," he says, shaking his head in amazement.
In this sense, he and Walker are now equals. Both of them enjoy taking pictures of stars.
Not too many PGA TOUR players have had photographs published on NASA's website. And when he's not creating those spectacular celestial images, Walker has broken through on TOUR in a big way, winning three of his first eight starts this season.
Walker's work on the golf course speaks for itself. But the astrophotographs he takes of the Horsehead Nebula, Christmas Tree cluster and Pinwheel Galaxy, to name a few, speak to different people in different ways.
"It's like any piece of art," his wife Erin says.
"Very personal," he finishes her sentence.
"Almost like an ink-blot test," Erin continues. "It's what each person sees in it."
And make no mistake, Walker is serious about his craft. He doesn't just dabble, and he's certainly no dillettante. As a result, Walker has made a name for himself in the close-knit astronomy community just as he has with golf fans around the world.
"I could tell right away Jimmy had a natural talent to produce beautiful images," fellow astrophotographer Michael Miller told PGATOUR.COM in an email. "I think that's because he devotes the same passion he does to golf."
In reality, Walker can now tell you, the moon is one of the easiest things to photograph against the night sky.
"You really only need one picture and you usually shoot it through a very strict filter so it's only like a three-tenths of a second image because it's so bright," Walker says. "Where this other stuff that I do, it takes hours and hours and hours and hours of data to make the picture look like it does. The object is so dim you need a lot of time on it to make it really pop.
"But people can relate the moon, not so much the planets, I think ... it's something they do see pretty much all the time."
As Walker got more serious about his hobby, he needed to find a place with less light pollution at night. So he headed for a little town west of his San Antonio home called Vanderpool, where he could rent a cabin for the night. Erin likens the landscape there to what could be seen in the movie "Seven Days of Utopia."
"So we all went out and we'd chill out out there," Walker remembers. "It's really nice and super quiet and very pretty out in the hill country. So that's kind of how it all started."
Two years ago, Walker moved his equipment to a permanent location that he likens to a "telescope country club." Mike and Lynn Rice run New Mexico Skies, which is home to nearly 60 telescopes at any given time and located high in the mountains about 580 miles from Walker's home.
"They've got all this fancy equipment that looks at the sky and cloud sensors and rain sensors," Walker says. "So when the skies are right these houses and domes open up and you're able to shoot."
Walker's telescope is in good company there, too. The Rices and their staff also take care of equipment from NASA, Yale and St. Andrews University -- yes, THAT St. Andrews.
"It's anything from people like me to universities doing research to NASA doing satellite tracking," Walker says. "... The last time I was out there Harvard had a project going on. It looked really intense. We've had people discover comets out there.
"It's really, really cool. I just like going out there because it's in the absolute middle of nowhere. The skies are the darkest and clearest skies that I've ever seen. It's really amazing to just go hang out there and look."
Walker uses a monochrome camera to shoot the detailed images, which are downloaded directly into a dropbox on his laptop, as many as 24 or 25 on any given night. The camera shoots black and white, but a wheel of seven different filters helps add the color back to the night sky.
Gathering the data for one photo is a long process. Walker says you want between one to four hours of color and another three to nine of luminance, which brings the light into the equation.
"So once you add it all up it's quite a bit of time invested in one image," he explains. "The longer you do on an image the cleaner it looks. It just fills in all the noise gaps and the background where there's not as much signal."
Walker is basically self-taught, using tutorials to help streamline workflow and others to learn to create master files -- which is where the art comes in.
"Every really good astrophotographer has a style and when I see an image I can usually tell of the really good ones, who they are, just by the style," Walker says.
"I think my style is evolving and continues to evolve. But I think I've kind of settled down a little bit. About a year ago I was really very dramatic and bright and vivid. And now I've really kind of toned it back and the images I am making now are very true to the eye, I would say, and not so over the top."
The stop at Flandrau Observatory was the final one on Walker's Tuesday Tucson tour that began several blocks away at the Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory. The facility, which happens to be located underneath the Wildcats' football stadium, is a state-of-the-art installation, a place where seven mirrors, each some 27 feet in diameter, are being made to create the biggest telescope in the world, one that will open up sights well beyond our solar system.
To put the size of the mirrors in perspective, think of one as being as wide as three lanes on a super highway. The mirrors are cast in a rotating furnace that is heated to approximately 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit -- and each weighs about 20 tons.
"You certainly don't want to hear the word 'Oops,' in here," jokes Robert Logan, the assistant dean for external and corporate relations at the University of Arizona.
The mirrors, which cost about $20 million to make, need several months to cool down before an exacting polishing process begins. By 2020, all seven mirrors will be linked together to form the Giant Magellan Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
Among those assisting the polishing team on this Tuesday evening was a student named Robert Dybus, a lifelong Tucson resident who is majoring in sustainable plant systems. A golfer since the age of 6, he wants to eventually design golf courses.
Now he's meeting the FedExCup leader.
"Did I know Jimmy? Oh, instantly," Dybus says. "I know that he's won three tournaments this year and everything, it was amazing. He was very down to earth. I was telling him what the polish on the mirror was, the red color, the rouge color, what it is, how recently we changed the polish that kind of stuff, and then he brought up golf, which was pretty cool, because I told him that I had just played at Dove Mountain.
"I just played there last weekend. He was asking me how I liked the greens, the design of the greens, so that was pretty neat."
Walker and Miller met on an online forum where astrophotographers post photos and share tips. Miller, who plays golf himself, was "totally shocked" to find out Walker played the PGA TOUR.
"I think he told me when I asked why he was setting up equipment so many different places," Miller recalls.
He was the one who first suggested Walker, who travels the TOUR with his family in an RV, set up his equipment at New Mexico Skies and try remote imaging. The two met there several weeks later and frequently critique each others images before posting them online.
"Jimmy and I really don't discuss golf very often, as I feel that's not appropriate," Miller says. "So I really don't think about him as a sports star or someone famous, nor does he act like it. He's the most gracious, kind individual I've had the pleasure of knowing."
Miller can sometimes be found in Walker's gallery at events in California, as he was earlier this year at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where his buddy won for the third time. And the two friends were attending an imaging conference in San Jose when Walker won his first PGA TOUR event at the Frys.com Open.
"Jimmy has developed a strong following in the astronomy community," Miller notes. "He was like a hero amongst the hundreds in attendance (in San Jose after he won). He's brought several people into watching him play, just by being Jimmy.
"Most importantly to me, is kids have asked him about imaging when he's playing. Getting our nation's kids interested in science through astronomy is tremendous."
Walker doesn't know whether either of his sons, McLain (nearly 4) or Beckett (who just celebrated his first birthday), have inherited their father's eye for the sky. McLain knows where the moon is, but most of the time, he's focused on something on this planet -- namely trucks.
"He's all about trucks," Walker says with a smile.
While hobbies of other PGA TOUR members generally run toward fishing and hunting and the occasional wine-collecting, some of Walker's friends who play golf find his work intriguing. Vijay Singh's son, Qass, in particular, has asked questions about how to get started as an astrophotographer.
Walker was drawn to astrophotography first because he's always liked being outside. As his interest grew, though, he got hooked on the artistic side of processing the data and making the images really stand out. He's hoping to hang a few of his favorites in the office at his new San Antonio home.
While Walker admits it's a "niche" market, his images are for sale on his website. A woman recently purchased about 50 and has reordered twice as many, although all in all, he hasn't sold a lot.
But that's not the point. Never has been.
"I'm not in this to make money or anything," Walker says. "I just do it for fun -- and it's nice that other people enjoy it."