As far as golf goes, Jimmy Walker has conquered the final frontier.
A late bloomer and aerospace nut who didn’t win his first PGA Tour event until three years ago at age 34, Walker held off a blistering rally from defending champion Jason Day on Sunday to claim the 98th PGA Championship, his first major title.
Walker, a hobbyist who uses his telescope to stare thousands of miles into space for fun, thankfully had his feet on terra firma when it mattered most, making huge putts from nine and three feet on the last two greens to beat Day by a shot at 14 under.
There was little oxygen left in the tank at the end of the journey, which wasn’t nearly as pyrotechnic as the final round of the major staged in Scotland two weeks ago. Yet the unassuming, workmanlike Walker was equally impressive in his own stoic way—he was practically error-free. From the first round through those final putts, he stayed atop the leaderboard.
As Day knocked a shot to within 14 feet for an eagle on the par-five 18th, Walker stood over his birdie putt on the penultimate green, figuring the trophy was well in hand.
“I was thinking [walking] up 17, if I could birdie that hole, it would put it out [of reach],” Walker told the CBS Sports crew. “We made the birdie. Sometimes things don’t come easy.”
Walker made the birdie putt for a three-shot lead just after Day put himself in position for an eagle. Day would then make that eagle putt, meaning that Walker had to par the last hole to win his sixth PGA Tour title in three years.
Yep, the eagle had landed.
“Eagle at the last,” Walker said on the CBS Broadcast. “That really put it on me to make a par. Sometimes pars are hard.”
Walker, who seemed to be made entirely of flint for the first 17 holes, finally blinked, at least for a moment. After smartly hitting an iron off the tee into the fairway, he drew gasps when he grabbed a 3-wood for his 288-yard second shot on the 554-yard 18th hole. Layup time? Hardly.
Analysts almost swallowed their microphones, and not without reason. Seconds after Day had triumphantly walked off the final green with the crowd roaring—the Australian star looked at least twice toward the players watching from the fairway—Walker reached for a fairway wood as the CBS Sports crew questioned the aggressiveness of his decision in unison.
Said six-time major champion Nick Faldo: “Oh, wow.”
Added Peter Kostis: “Oh my word, he’s taking out the 3-wood.”
Chimed in Jim Nantz: “Why? I think a whole lot of why.”
Walker, 37, then fanned the shot well right and into the rough, leaving him with a 29-yard pitch shot over a yawning greenside bunker. Despite bringing a potentially big number into the equation, he calmly pitched the ball 30 feet past the flag, lagged to three feet and raked it into the hole to hold off Day by a shot as the world No. 1 watched from a few feet away.
There’s a term at the Kennedy Space Center called "Max Q" for when aerodynamic stress reaches its highest point. On a day when drama was sorely lacking for most of the afternoon, the Texan converted the two throat-constricting putts to keep Day from winning the title for a second successive year.
Somehow, Walker’s rivets held fast.
The two players, both dressed in black, exchanged hugs on the final green. It took a while to develop, but it was a memorable gunfight at the end. Walker finished with a three-under 67 and recorded the first bogey-free round of his career at a major, on his 58th try. The timing not only was perfect, but paramount.
After starting the final round with a one-shot lead over Day, Walker parred the first nine holes while nobody in the field applied the slightest pressure. Like the sloppy weather that was forecast, the birdie deluge never materialized, either.
Two weeks to the day after the greatest final-round duel in majors took place at the Open Championship in Scotland, this felt like a Troon Swoon.
On the 10th, however, Walker holed a 45-foot sand shot from a greenside bunker for a birdie, which also seemed to rouse Day. About 90 seconds later, Day followed from a hole ahead with a birdie on the 11th.
Day, however, couldn’t establish any momentum as Walker played impressively consistent golf. Over the first seven holes of the back-nine chase, Day’s closest birdie chance was from 22 feet. Indeed, Day’s biggest putt before the eagle at the last was a 10-footer for par on the 15th.
Somehow, Day mustered the moxie to eagle the 18th—he had only played the two closing par-five holes in one under for the week, which arguably cost him the tournament—to make Walker sweat to the final putt.
Through it all, Walker looked like another tough Texan, Ben Hogan. Inside, well, that was another story.
“There’s a lot of emotion going on out there, I’m not going to lie,” Walker said to CBS. “It was amazing. It was a battle all day.”
Walker, who began working with noted swing coach Butch Harmon four years ago, hadn’t won a tour title until October 2013, and now he has a half-dozen to his credit. Still, he hadn’t mustered a top-10 finish since March and entered the tournament as a mostly forgotten, a 70-1 pick in Las Vegas, per Odds Shark.
Golf Channel @GolfChannel
Only 2 players have held lead/co-lead thru all 4 rounds of #PGAChamp last 20 years: Tiger '00 Phil '05 Walker ? https://t.co/hfijJ64sVV2016-7-31 19:15:10
His wife, Erin, was quick to point out that her husband, who all but officially secured his second berth on the U.S. Ryder Cup team with the victory, hadn’t exactly keeled over dead during the past six months:
Erin Walker @tourwifetravels
@EllingYelling amusing how quickly people forget how good he is when he's on. 🙄2016-7-28 21:29:51
It had been four years since a player won a major title with a bogey-free final round, dating to Rory McIlroy’s victory at the 2012 PGA.
About the only mistake Walker made all week came when he three-putted the 18th on Friday to keep from matching the lowest 36-hole in Grand Slam history.
For a guy who spends hours staring into space, it might be hard to remain grounded after such a strong performance, but this is a seriously level-headed dude. As for his hobby, Walker is so good at space photography that he won an award from NASA and recently posted his pictures online for the world to see.
“Not to brag, but you might have a hard time believing a pro golfer shot that stuff,” he told Guy Yocom of Golf Digest.
After a stellar week at Baltusrol, he can afford to put the telescope in the closet for a while.
Now, whenever he wants to go star-gazing, he can just look in the mirror.
Steve Elling covers golf for Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @EllingYelling.