SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Forget about figuring out golf. Sometimes all you can do is just roll with it. Jimmy Walker found that out this season as he practiced as diligently as ever and could not win or even get close. “Sometimes,” he said, “hard work doesn’t pay off.”
Then he added, “But in time, it will, I think.”
He has new hope that this might be one of those times. The player who won three tournaments and made the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2014 and won twice more in 2015 rebounded from a season-long drought and shot 5-under par 65 at Baltusrol Golf Club. He led after the first round of the PGA Championship on Thursday.
“I would have loved to have had a better year than I’ve had so far but I know there’s always time to play well at the end of the year,” Walker said after making six birdies and one bogey to hold a one-stroke lead over Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, Ross Fisher of England and two-time major champion Martin Kaymer of Germany.
Henrik Stenson, fresh off his British Open victory two weeks ago, also started strongly at 3-under 67. Then again, U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson shot 7-over 77, behind numerous club pros and 53-year-old Senior PGA champion Rocco Mediate. As Walker can tell you, that’s the game.
Referring to his own 2016 season, which has not featured a top-five finish since Feb. 1 and has included missed cuts at the U.S. and British Opens, Walker said, “It’s just been real stale and stagnant. It’s just ebbs and flows of golf. I just haven’t been scoring, haven’t been making the 10- to 15- to 18-footers you need to make to start running up the leaderboard and have high finishes. Just a lot of even-par to couple-under golf, and it has equated to a bunch of 20th place finishes.
“Sometimes it’s hard. I’m not going to lie. It’s tough. You feel like you’re killing yourself and you’re giving it all you’ve got and you’re just not seeing it,” he said.
What he did was just keep on working on basics: keeping the lower body quiet during his swing, focusing on hitting fairways and greens, trusting his putter. The latter was sharpened in practice-round matches this week with Rickie Fowler (2-under Thursday), Rory McIlroy (a disappointing 4-over) and others. In one of them, he made a putt to win on the final hole. “Kind of makes lunch taste a little better and gives them a frown,” he said.
Thursday, he finished his first nine (the back side) with three birdies on the final four holes. He putted in from off the green for birdie 3 on No. 7, then ended with two pars.
Walker was fortunate to have played in the morning, before the wind kicked up and the greens got bumpier. Kaymer and Stenson both had to deal with those conditions and both still played well. “Well, there’s nothing easy on the golf course today,” said Kaymer, winner of the 2010 PGA and 2014 U.S. Open. “I just didn’t miss many fairways and therefore, you can create some birdie chances.”
Stenson, who was surprised to have been met with standing ovations even during practice rounds this week, said, “I feel like I’m pretty clear with my game, with my swing and everything.”
He was the most recent of three first-time major champions this season, which is not one of golf’s anomalies, in Walker’s opinion. “It seems like anybody that’s out there playing in this championship or any other major has a right to be there. It’s because they’re good,” the first-round leader said.
“Three first-time major winners this year, I don’t think it’s coincidence or anything. They are all good players and it was just a matter of time,” said Walker, who has yet to win a major. “So just keep that rolling.”