May 20, 2014

Walker bridges gap from stargazer to star attraction

Former Baylor golfer enjoying breakthrough year on PGA Tour, ready to contend at Colonial.

For years, Jimmy Walker has stared at the stars. He’s photographed them with help from a $30,000 telescope and a $13,000 camera.

But until this season, the former Baylor golfer produced a career record in PGA Tour events that suggested “journeyman” instead of “star.” Walker turned professional in 2001 and did not record his first tour triumph until this season.

Once he began winning, the Boerne resident has become the hottest player on the planet — or any of the other planets and galaxies he has photographed from his favorite perch in a national forest in eastern New Mexico.

Walker, 35, heads into Thursday’s opening round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial as the PGA Tour’s season leader in victories (three), FedEx Cup points (2,172) and earnings ($4,568,475). He ranks second in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings (4,802.475 points), putting him on pace to land one of nine automatic berths on the 2014 team in August.

And he believes his hot streak has yet to run its course, based on recent top-10 finishes at the Masters (eighth) and The Players Championship (sixth).

“I feel like I’m just right there to knock on the door to try to win again. So that’s the plan,” said Walker, who has a 69.9 season scoring average. “You get to a place where you feel comfortable … and nothing really scares you.”

Walker, after 12 winless seasons as an on-again, off-again competitor on the PGA Tour, has found that feeling of invincibility this season with victories at the Open, Sony Open in Hawaii and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But he does not consider himself a marked man, sporting a target on his back in the FedEx Cup race.

That designation falls on his caddie, Andy Sanders, who wears the orange bib reserved for the person who totes the bag for the FedEx Cup leader at PGA Tour events.

“That’s his nickname now, ‘Orange Bib,’ ” Walker said. “Everbody calls him ‘Orange Bib’ and ‘Super Caddie.’ Definitely makes you want to keep playing well.”

Based on Walker’s spotty attendance record at Colonial — in his lone appearance, he finished tied for 56th in 2011 — the unanswered question is whether Walker’s game is suited for Hogan’s Alley. Walker believes it is. So does Brendon Todd, Sunday’s winner at the HP Byron Nelson Championship.

“There aren’t too many golf courses that he faces that he’s not going to have a really good chance to contend,” Todd said. “He hits it so far and so pure. I really like Jimmy. I think he’s a stand-up guy. I’m excited for his success.”

As one of the 9,525 followers of Walker’s Twitter account (@JimmyWalkerPGA), Todd also can vouch for the quality of Walker’s efforts in astrophotography. The latest example, posted Monday, featured a shot of purplish-black skies and constellations taken from New Mexico Skies, a facility in Lincoln National Forest in Mayhill, N.M.

The 7,300-foot altitude benefits Walker’s efforts to find the ideal conditions for his hobby. With a computer hookup, he can operate the camera from anywhere if nighttime conditions are ideal.

Todd described Walker’s photographic efforts as “very interesting” and “crazy good.” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, also a fan, has piqued the interest of two former presidents in regard to Walker’s hobby.

During a lunch at a charity event to benefit The First Tee, Finchem urged Walker (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) to display some of his photographs to a fellow diner, former President George W. Bush.

“I showed it to him and he thought that was pretty cool,” Walker said of his interaction with Bush. “And he pulled out his iPad and showed me the app where you hold it up and you can see all the stars. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got that one.’ Then he started showing me all the paintings he’s done. So it was a pretty cool lunch. I heard Finchem showed the stuff to [former President Bill] Clinton and Clinton thought it was amazing. And he wants to meet next year at [a tour event]. So that’s pretty cool, too.”

For Walker, the coolest part of his unique hobby is the sense of wonder at seeing bright stars outlined against a dark sky.

“I just started in the back yard with a telescope and figured out how to attach a camera to it. Now, it’s blown up into a huge, crazy deal in New Mexico,” said Walker, who plans to spend a significant portion of the next two weeks stargazing. Colonial will be his final competitive appearance before the U.S. Open, June 12-15 in Pinehurst, N.C.

Walker plans to arrive at the Open still in control of the FedEx Cup standings, as well as other significant season goals. He’s also added a new one: a berth on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team when golf is added to the Summer Games.

“Being No. 1 at the end of the fourth playoff event would be a goal,” Walker said of this year’s FedEx Cup chase. “Obviously, playing the Ryder Cup … and making the Olympic team would be awesome. To be part of something like that, I think it would just be incredible to be part of that experience. So those are the goals.”

A strong showing at Colonial would bring them closer to reality for the PGA Tour’s newest stargazing star.

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