When anyone starts the PGA Tour season the way Jimmy Walker has, a flip through the record books is appropriate. He’s got three wins in his first eight starts and won his opening-round match over Branden Grace in this week’s WGC Accenture Match Play in Arizona. He lost in the second round to Ricky Fowler.
The obvious place to start is Tiger Woods, but the memory also rocks back to the early ’70s when Johnny Miller owned the early portion of the Tour schedule.
Miller’s record is impressive. He won several tournaments in the opening months of the PGA Tour, but two seasons were standouts. In 1974, at age 26 Miller won three-straight events in January (Pebble Beach, Phoenix and Tucson) and five more before the end of the year. In ’75, Miller won three events in January and February.
As for Tiger, he hasn’t duplicated that sort of early-season success since he began cutting back on his schedule in the fall around 2000. But when he started his professional career in 1996, he won twice in October (Las Vegas and Disney) and again in January (Mercedes Tournament of Champions). In 1999 into 2000, he won five times from October to February.
David Duval also has instances where he played well from October to February. In 1997-98 he won four times from October to February. A year later he won three times from October to January, and that included the round of 59 that he shot to win the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Those quality early-season starts translated well for each player. Miller qualified for his first U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1975. The same for Woods in 1997, and again in 1999 and 2002. Duval landed on his first team in 1999.
Walker currently leads the Ryder Cup standings. It would be difficult to imagine Walker not keeping a qualifying spot on the team (there are nine automatic spots and three captain’s choices), but there are cases of players falling out of the standings after a good start to a season, as was examined in a previous post here on this website.
But, leads can be lost, and that almost happened to Walker at Pebble Beach. He came into the final round with a six-stroke lead, continued with that margin heading into the back nine, yet needed a knee-knocker five-foot putt on the 18th to win by a shot while closing out a 2-over round of 74.
What happened? This is the same Pebble Beach Golf Links where Walker carded a bogey-free 66 in the first round before playing his next two rounds at Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula. He also shot a 6-under 66 in the final round at Pebble last year while finishing in a tie for third behind Brandt Snedecker.
Walker had made one bogey all week, yet made five on Sunday. The struggles showed in his putting stats. In his three previous rounds Walker took an average of 1.75 putts per green hit in regulation. In the final round he went to 1.923 putts per GIR. He had a strokes-gained-putting figure of 1.692 earlier in the week, but his final round actually saw him lose strokes in that category, -1.507.
Even considering that, Walker did something he had not done before on the PGA Tour. He won while holding the lead entering the final round. His wins at Frys.com and Sony came when he trailed heading into final day.