While the “atmospheric river” that has been drenching California north of the Golden Gate continued to dump rain on the North Bay counties on Sunday, the Monterey Peninsula region was spared a soaking over the weekend, with wind the biggest factor affecting play at the 2014 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Saturday’s stormy weather had little effect on the man who ended up as the tournament’s 54-hole leader, Oklahoma native Jimmy Walker, who played his third round on MPCC’s Shore Course, a layout which is as vulnerable to the wind off the Pacific as any of the three courses in the tournament rotation. Walker carded a 4-under 67 in the third round on the par-71 MPCC course, taking sole possession of the lead after 54 holes, with six strokes in hand. His 36-hole co-leader, Jordan Spieth, shot 6-over 78 on Saturday at a windswept Pebble Beach, dropping down the leaderboard faster than Lindsey Vonn skis down a mountain.
Walker jump-started his 2013-2014 season with a win, the first of his career, at the season-opening Frys.com Open, then just to polish the apple, he came back five starts later and won again, at the Sony Open. With his first two Tour wins still so fresh in his mind that he still hadn’t fully assimilated them, Walker teed off in Sunday’s final round at 11:12 a.m. in pursuit of his third win in eight starts. Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, players with decent records in this event – with four and two wins, respectively – were playing ahead of him and looking to chase him down.
Playing under mostly grey skies, with light breezes and only occasional spats of mist and light rain to contend with, Walker gave a shot back early with a bogey on the first hole, but bounced back at the par-5 second, getting up and down out of the left-hand greenside bunker for birdie. In a final round that included a fair amount of scrambling from the rough and fairway bunkers, the 2001 Baylor graduate held steady through the front nine, and was still holding a six-stroke lead at the turn.
Jordan Spieth made a final-round charge that could have been worrisome for Walker if the young Texan hadn’t been recovering from a third-round 78. With an eagle at #2, and birdies at 9, 16, and 18, the youngster posted his third 67 of the tournament, and was in second place, at eight under, when he finished his round. Spieth’s second-place position didn’t hold, though, as Dustin Johnson and Web.com Tour player Justin Renner moved ahead of him in the closing holes of their rounds. Spieth finished 4th, a fourteen-place improvement over his 54-hole position.
With Walker’s pursuers pushing, but not hard enough to really mount a challenge, the Texan nevertheless came out stumbling on the back nine, dropping two strokes in the first four holes with three bogeys and a birdie. Righting the ship with pars at holes 14, 15, and 16, Walker stuck his approach at the par-4 sixteenth hole to 2-1/2 feet, then, narrowly missing a birdie putt that would have fluffed the cushion of his lead before rolling in the par putt to stay two strokes ahead.
When Johnson and Renner closed with birdies on #18 to finish tied at 10-under, and with Hunter Mahan having never quite gotten up the head of steam that would have been required to challenge for the lead, the tournament was Walker’s to win or lose with two holes to play.
The drama began to build when Walker narrowly missed a 5-1/2-foot par putt at the par-3 sixteenth hole, trimming his lead to one with one hole to play.
A conservative decision to hit 4-iron off the tee at the eighteenth hole nearly went awry when Walker pushed the shot right, into the bunchy native-grass rough behind the right-side fairway bunker. A creditable second shot – out of a good lie for the area he was in – went 187 yards to the right rough, leaving the 35-year-old Walker a 119-yard approach to the right-side flag – a shot that had to skirt the huge Cypress tree guarding the right side of the green, not to mention carrying the front bunker. With visual and physical obstacles affecting the shot, Walker – surprisingly – took on the flag. His shot from the rough landed to the right of and above the flag, just at the back of the green, leaving a 32-foot downhill putt for birdie.
It would have been a tough putt under any circumstances, but the possibility of rolling it well past and needing to make the comebacker to win – after missing that 5-footer at 17 – lent the putt a compelling level of gravitas.
Unfortunately for his peace of mind, Walker missed the birdie putt. Watching that putt slide by on the right to leave a 5-foot uphill putt for the win caused Walker to refocus and reset. Standing over the comeback putt, Walker thought to himself, “Get set up, keep your head down, don’t watch the putt, make a good stroke.” His routine worked, because the par putt dropped, clinching Walker’s third career win, and, amazingly, his third in eight starts
“I ran (the birdie putt) by,” he said, “I don’t know what it was – 4 or 5 feet – but really got set in on that putt and blocked everything out and made a good stroke. The best stroke of the back nine, I think, really.”
With three wins under his belt in eight starts, Walker is now the Fedex Cup leader – over 750 points ahead of 2nd-place Harris English – and #1 in the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings, but he is still looking ahead to the next tournament as another opportunity to play well.
“It’s still kind of new and it’s happened so fast, but I’m going to play next week and I’m going to play the week after that. I’ll enjoy tonight and then it’s time to refocus and reset everything…”