Jimmy Walker quietly stepped away from the PGA Tour in April, not sure whether it was lingering effects of Lyme disease or mounting frustration – probably both – that led to the decision. He just knew he needed to get away for the rest of the year, maybe two, maybe longer.
And then LIV Golf came along.
The Saudi riches didn’t land at his door in San Antonio, and Walker isn’t sure he would have been interested. ”History is powerful and it’s what that doesn’t have yet,” he said.
Walker watched from the sidelines, not begrudging anyone who chose to go to the rival league. What he didn’t realize was that for each player who signed up for LIV Golf – and was suspended by or resigned from the PGA Tour – it only helped him.
The phone call on Labor Day surprised him.
Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman were among the latest to leave, allowing Walker to move up nine spots to No. 50 in career earnings on the PGA Tour. That gave him access to a one-time exemption for the new season that starts Thursday.
Walker was happy at home behind a grill, on his lawn mower, going to the gym or chasing after his two boys. He still played golf with friends, the show-up-and-swing-it variety. That was fun.
”I’ve been running and gunning at this professional sports job for 20 years,” he said. ”I just needed time to not do a damn thing.”
Walker also knew this chance wouldn’t be around next year if he didn’t take it.
”I had no plans to play and I didn’t know when I would play again. I might have been done,” Walker said. ”Is it fate that this is happening? I don’t know.”
Leave it to the words of a child.
Walker figures he could have retired and been satisfied with a career that brought him a major championship and two Ryder Cup teams. He is 43 and still feels he can do more. So he asked his sons, 12-year-old McClain and 9-year-old Beckett, if they wanted him to go on the road again.
”The youngest, Beckett, said to me: `Can you be great again? If you think you can do that, I want you to go.’ That was a real tear-jerk moment,” Walker said.
Beckett was 3 when Walker scooped him into his arms on the 18th green at Baltusrol after his one-shot victory in the 2016 PGA Championship. Can he deliver another moment like that? He figures it’s worth a shot, especially when the decision was made for him.
Walker is one example of how LIV Golf has provided a path that players weren’t expecting.
Another former PGA champion, Jason Dufner, moved into the top 50 in career money to get his card. Rory Sabbatini landed in the top 25 in career money because of LIV suspensions.
And that’s what had Walker on a commercial flight Monday from San Antonio to Oakland, California, and then a short drive – no courtesy car this week – to Napa for the Fortinet Championship and the start of a season he wasn’t planning to play.
He was so determined to make a clean break from golf that Walker stayed home instead of playing the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, where he made his pro debut in the 2001 U.S. Open. That would be coming full circle. He preferred full stop.
”I’ve had a great career,” he said. ”I can hang my hat on that.”
It took Walker 178 starts on the PGA Tour before he finally won the season opener at CordeValle in 2013 by beating Brooks Koepka, a sponsor exemption who had earned his European tour card that year. Koepka was one of the players who signed with LIV and enabled Walker to move up the career earnings list.
Walker still holds the Sony Open record with a nine-shot win in 2015. He peaked a year later when he captured his lone major and played on his second straight Ryder Cup team, this one a U.S. win at Hazeltine.
A hunting trip to King Ranch that fall is where he suspects he got Lyme disease, though it took months of symptoms and uncertainty before he received the diagnosis on the Wednesday before the Masters.
The road back seemed to get longer the harder he worked.
He felt fine one week, terrible the next. Medication made him sensitive to the sun. He started struggling with chipping and putting, the hallmark of his game. He was happy at home in San Antonio, increasingly grumpy on the road.
Now it feels like a fresh start. Walker has played long enough to know what’s ahead.
Golf is getting younger and better. Only the top 70 keep their cards in this new season of big prize funds, another change brought on by LIV Golf.
”I had mixed emotions leaving,” Walker said during a layover Monday in San Diego. ”I know what it entails, the hard work and all that. I’m nervous. Honestly, I don’t feel super prepared. But there’s not a better way than to jump right back into it.
”It could be amazing, or it could be a disaster.”
Either way, it’s something Walker wasn’t expecting. He has LIV Golf to thank for that.
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