Troubles behind him, Walker looks to get back on track

July 12, 2007
By Dave Shedloski Senior Correspondent

UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio -- No sooner had Jimmy Walker exited the scoring tent behind the 18th green at Ohio State University's Scarlet Course then he engulfed his wife, Erin, in his long arms and held onto her for an extra moment. He then said softly, chuckling just a bit, "Sorry about that honey."

2007 Nationwide Tour Finishes
Tournament Finish Score to Par
Movistar Panama Championship CUT +12
Jacob's Creek Open Championship T22 -4
HSBC New Zealand PGA Championship T49 +4
Chitimacha Louisiana Open Pres'd by Dynamic Industries T64 -1
Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship at Wente Vineyards CUT +11
Athens Regional Foundation Classic CUT E
Henrico County Open T26 -6
Fort Smith Classic Presented by Stephens Inc. T38 -6
BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs T20 -7
Melwood Prince George's County Open T41 -5
The Rex Hospital Open T35 -3
Rochester Area Charities Showdown at Somerby presented by Think T60 -4
Knoxville Open Presented by Food City T24 -7
Peek'n Peak Classic T8 -5
Legend Financial Group Classic Presented by Cynergies Solutions T18 -7

Walker had just completed a heart-thumping 1-over-par 72 Thursday afternoon in the first round of the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational, one highlighted by more gut-checks than a dietician's day-timer. With a series of par saves down the stretch on the wind-blown Scarlet Course, Walker showed the kind of talent and tenacity that had earned him Player of the Year honors in 2004. He simultaneously earned a ticket to the PGA TOUR, but how could he have known that it would be a round-trip deal with too many bumps and bruises and too few breaks.

"I've said that I've been about a quarter-round away from playing really well, and I guess I got that out of the way early," Walker, 28, said after a turbulent round noteworthy for a 100-yard lob wedge that he converted for an eagle-2 on the par-4 seventh hole. "I actually played pretty well, pretty solid. I'm not unhappy. I'm in an OK spot to be in."

Five strokes behind leader Chris Nallen, Walker knew he had plenty of time to make up ground over the next three days, especially if the wind continued to churn up the 7,455-yard Scarlet layout.

As for the last three years, the former Baylor University All-American would dearly like to have those back -- and you wouldn't blame him.

Imagine reaching the pinnacle of your chosen field only to suffer a mysterious ailment that prevents you from performing your duties. In fact, on the first day of your new job you have to take sick leave. Subsequently, you get knocked back down the ladder through no fault of your own.

Welcome to Walker's not-so-dynamite story.

After two victories and $371,346 in earnings in '04, Walker showed up at the PGA TOUR's first full-field event, the Sony Open in Hawaii hungry, eager, and on top of his game. But he never got to hit a shot, injuring his neck while working on the practice range prior to the tournament. He took a month off, came back too soon, but still posted a couple of top-20s before having to shut down his season in May. Visits to four doctors finally pinpointed the problem, a bulging disc.

He played the '06 season on a medical extension, but never was comfortable with his game and never fully confident that he wouldn't hurt himself again. Just nine checks and one top-25 in 21 starts delivered him back to the Nationwide Tour.

"It was a huge disappointment," Walker, who lives in San Antonio, said. "I had worked my way up slowly to Player of the Year on the Nationwide Tour, and I was really ready for the next step. You're right where you want to be and then you just get derailed, and it was a huge blow. To get kicked back down to the bottom of the rung ... I was pretty frustrated."

But not discouraged, he pointed out. He had neither the inclination nor the time to get discouraged. "I'm pretty happy-go-lucky," he said. "But 2005 ended up being a horrible year. It was a challenge to stay positive."

Indeed. Not long after Walker got injured, a close friend of the family died of cancer. Then Erin's mom contracted breast cancer and had difficulty in the recovery and reconstructive process.

"You have your ups and downs, but we were pretty down for a long time," Walker admitted. "I met Erin when things were going well, and it's probably amazing we even got married, but she was great and we got through it together.

"It's funny to say, but maybe I came out on the other end even tougher than I was. I thought I was tough before, but like I'm even more tough, and I take things even better, handle things better."

One example of that is his refusal to feel sorry for himself or get bogged down in what might have been. That isn't particularly easy when he sees the success of other former Nationwide Tour Players of the Year. The 2003 winner, Zach Johnson, captured the Masters this year. The two men who followed Walker on the list, Jason Gore and Ken Duke, have performed well. Troy Matteson, who set the Nationwide Tour earnings record in 2005, won a PGA TOUR event in '06.

"He's never complained or said, 'Why me?' He handles things so well," said Erin, who rides horses competitively and who's father, Mark Stiegemeyer, is a former world champion freestyle skier. "We look at what Zach or Troy or Ken Duke and how well they have played, and you just know Jimmy would have done just as well. He was on everyone's radar. Then you go to like, 'Oh, yeah, so that's what happened to him.' "

Walker has played 17 of the Nationwide Tour's 19 events this year, and he is currently 58th in earnings with just over $54,000. Three of his five top-25 finishes, including his only top-10, have come in the last three weeks.

He said he is close to breaking through after changing swing coaches -- he now works with Todd Anderson -- and enlisting the help of a sports psychologist to help him unlock the mental side of the game to which he had, well, never given a second thought.

"Before I got hurt, I did a lot of things well on the mental side of golf. The problem was, I didn't know why or how I did it," Walker said. "I sort of lost or forgot how to do certain things. Well, I didn't lose it, but I just didn't understand what I was doing and how I had known to do things before. So I sort of needed to find what was in there and reapply them to my game."

Injury free for much of the year, Walker is taking next week off and gearing up for a push to get into the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list, which would bring him another berth on the PGA TOUR. If he should fall shy, Walker is not troubled by having to go through Q-School.

"I like my game, everything, except I want my driver to be better ... back to where it used to be," Walker said, nit-picking at himself. "I've been getting by on a lot of 3-woods and 2-irons, but I'm really working on that aspect. I feel good about things, where my game is headed. I feel like I can use my talent again. It was enough before. It should be again."

"I have every faith that Jimmy is going to come out of this better than before," Erin added. "He's a strong person, and he's such a good, warm-hearted man. He gets closer all the time to playing like the Jimmy of old, and he's worked hard at it. He deserves another chance."

Indeed, or maybe it's more appropriate to say that he deserves another first chance.