On the Sunday night before the PGA Championship, Jimmy Walker and Andy Sanders, his caddie, showed up near Baltusrol after a 14th-place finish in the Canadian Open.
To that point, Walker had zero wins for 2016 and he had missed five cuts in the 19 tournaments that he had started. Many in golf have felt that the 37-year-old Walker has been an underachiever of sorts given his overall talents which include great length off the tee and a putting stroke that is considered one of the best on tour.
When I spent time with Walker at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland his skills were evident.
“If Jimmy Walker ever figures out how good he really is, there will be no stopping him,” Andy North, former U.S. Open champion, remarked on multiple occasions when he served as a vice captain at Gleneagles.
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But, on the dawn of the PGA Championship, it looked as if Walker might continue to toil in oblivion. Even Sanders, who knows Walker better than anybody, could not envision what was ahead in the next few days.
“We certainly showed up at the PGA Championship not expecting to win. I knew we were doing some good things and trending in the right direction,” Sanders said. “Jimmy’s confidence was growing and he was starting to gain some momentum. After seeing the course, I thought this would be another week of gaining more positives.”
When Sanders spoke about “trending” he meant that Walker was starting to drive it better and hit more fairways. He was making more putts and his confidence level was getting better.
In particular, Walker’s overall temperament was improving. Walker would appear to be somewhat unflappable, especially after last week’s PGA victory, but according to Sanders that’s not necessarily the case.
“Jimmy wears his emotions on his sleeves. He is pretty intense. He plays hard all of the time and never gives up. Sometimes he wants it so bad — too bad. That’s the real Jimmy,” Sanders confided.
Even after Walker shot 65 on Thursday and grabbed the first-round lead, Sanders admitted a PGA Championship was still not in the thought process.
“We weren’t really thinking about winning at that point. We had a long way to go to win the golf tournament. We just got off to a good start. Jimmy had never been there before. He had never led in a major championship,” Sanders said.
The weather soon became the story at Baltusrol. Rain forced long delays and forced players out of their routines and rhythm. Players react to these situations in different ways. It can be an obstacle or it can present an opportunity.
“It’s just golf. These are things you just have to deal with. We got a lucky draw in the fact that we played early/late in the first two rounds,” said Sanders. “You learn to accept it and deal with it.”
Walker fired a stellar 66 in Round 2 and found himself atop the leaderboard again. With 36 holes remaining and weather being a big factor, Walker and Sanders left the course around 6 p.m. Saturday.
“I had dinner around eight o’clock and went to bed at 11 p.m. I really didn’t think we would be playing a lot of golf on Sunday. I guess that was a good thing because we still weren’t thinking that much about winning. I suppose it might have been a good thing that we really didn’t feel like we were sleeping on a lead Saturday night,” Sanders said.
Walker got off to a slow start on Sunday. He bogeyed two of his first five holes. Sanders knew his man was out of sync.
“Jimmy was a little quick all morning, even on the practice tee. When he gets that way it affects everything he does,” Sanders admitted. “He missed a couple of fairways and two makeable putts. The sixth hole is a big hole, a good par four. He hit a great drive, knocked to about 10-feet and made the putt for birdie. That might have been the key hole for the week. Jimmy got settled down and starting playing well.”
Walker became workmanlike finishing his third round with a 67. It continued in the final round as he fought off Jason Day and Henrik Stenson. Walker did appear unflappable as he went through a 28-hole stretch bogey free. It seemed that he locked up the PGA Championship with a crucial birdie on the 17th hole in the final round. That gave him a three shot lead with a hole to go.
“I definitely felt really good when that putt went in. We had a three-shotter and even if (Jason) Day made eagle it didn’t matter,” Sanders said.
Day did make eagle as Walker watched from the fairway. All Jimmy had to do was make par on the final hole and the Wanamaker Trophy was his. Many questioned his decision to go for the green on his second shot rather than play a safe layup shot.
“If you lay up you bring the creek and the bunkers in play. It’s an awkward shot. It really only took 200 yards to clear all of the trouble. Jimmy suggested the 3-wood. We were playing lift, clean and place so the ball was basically on a tee,” Sanders said. “I would have rather seen him hit it left but with soft greens the pitch we had on the third shot was pretty easy. He took his medicine pretty good and left a longer putt than I would have liked.”
Sanders admits that he and Walker have taken “a fair amount” of criticism for how they played the final hole. Ultimately Walker had to make a 3-footer to win the PGA. Was Sanders nervous?
“The ball rolled by the hole, so we knew what it would do going back. It was an inside right putt. In the past two weeks we started reading putts together. I think it helps release any doubts that Jimmy has when he is over the ball. I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe this is to really win the PGA championship,’” Sanders said.
Walker made the putt and walked away with a $1.8 million check. His total 2016 PGA Tour earnings had been $1.4 million. He and Sanders will now be at the Ryder Cup.
“I know it means a tremendous amount to Jimmy. We always say that we want the season to start in Maui (Tournament of Champions) and end at the Tour Championship. That means you had a good year,” Sanders said.
Walker and Sanders have a bond that goes way back. The two played collegiate golf against each other. They traveled together on the mini-tours until the effects of medication he was taking for multiple sclerosis ended Sanders’ playing career. That’s when Walker asked his good friend to caddie.
My final questions to Sanders was this. When Jimmy made the winning putt was there any bittersweet sensation maybe that could have been you winning the PGA?
“I’m so far removed from that. I never had the game to win a major. I’m happy for Jimmy and it was great to be a part of this. My health is great and all is good,” said Sanders who actually took my questions as he drove to his doctor for a routine check-up.
For those that don’t know, Sanders’ grandmother, Dottie, lived across the street from me in Franklin for 15 years. His dad, Greg, is a PGA pro and was a standout golfer at Franklin High School. I’ve known Andy since he was a little kid. He is truly an inspiration on how to deal with adversity.
“I can’t wait for the Ryder Cup. I really enjoyed that environment and we definitely have some unfinished business to take care of,” Sanders said.