Saturday, July 21, 2018

Jimmy Walker wins first major at PGA Championship

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — The stars had never aligned this magnificently for Jimmy Walker.

In the longest final day at the PGA Championship in 64 years, Walker produced three big birdies on the back nine at Baltusrol and held his nerve Sunday against the No. 1 player in the world to the very end. He closed with 3-under 67 for a one-shot victory over defending champion Jason Day at 14-under 266.

Walker provided a little too much drama at the end.

He built a three-shot lead with an 8-foot birdie putt on the par-5 17th, only to watch Day blast a 2-iron onto the green at the par-5 18th to 15 feet for an eagle, setting off the loudest cheer of the week and closing his deficit to one shot.

"It was nice to get the eagle, just to try and make Jimmy think about it," Day said. "But obviously, Jimmy just played too good all day."

Needing only par to win, Walker went for the green and left it in deep rough to the right and well below the green. He safely pitched to 35 feet, and the ensuing putt settled 3 feet beyond the hole. He had never felt more nerves over such a short putt, which dropped in to give Walker his first major victory at 37.

Walker — who led wire to wire — calmly pumped his fist twice and embraced his caddie, Andy Sanders, whom he met at Baltusrol in the 2000 U.S. Amateur when they played a practice round.

"Sometimes, things just don't come easy," Walker said after hoisting the 37-pound Wanamaker Trophy, impressive that he had any strength left after a 36-hole final day brought on by rain Saturday. "(Day) really put it on me to make a par. Sometimes pars are hard. But we got it.

"It was amazing. It was a battle all day."

Day, trying to join Tiger Woods as the only back-to-back winners of the PGA Championship in the stroke-play era, went out to the 18th green with his young son, Dash, to watch the finish and quickly found Walker as he walked off the green.

"Great stuff, mate," Day said.

In a most peculiar final day at a major, the PGA Championship allowed for preferred lies — that never happens in a major — because of nearly 4 inches of rain during the week that drenched the Lower Course. Desperate to beat the clock and avoid a second straight Monday finish in a PGA Championship at Baltusrol, the pairings stayed the same for the final round.

Walker and Day played with occasional mud on their balls on the back nine of the third round Sunday morning as some players behind them were able to lift, clean and place their balls in short grass in the fourth round.

But it ended on a happy note for Walker. He is a major champion, completing a sweep of first-time winners in the majors this year.

Better yet: It moved him from No. 29 to No. 4 in the Ryder Cup standings, all but assuring him a spot on the U.S. team for the event this fall.

Walker is a late bloomer who has received as much attention in recent years for his astrophotography, with some of his work recognized by NASA. He needed a performance that was out of this world in a wet, wild Sunday, and he delivered every step of the way.

He shot 68-67 Sunday to finish one shot from David Toms' record score in the 2001 PGA Championship. Day finished 67-67.

Walker played the final 28 holes without a bogey. He began the back nine of his final round by holing a 45-foot bunker shot on No. 10 and making a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 11. The final birdie was the most important. Walker twice had to back off his 8-foot birdie putt on the 17th when he heard the crowd erupt after Day's shot into the 18th.

It slipped in the edge of the cup for birdie, and Walker had the cushion he needed.

More amazing than Walker playing bogey-free for his first major was that the PGA Championship even finished. Any delay would have meant a Monday finish. Instead, it was the first time since Jim Turnesa won the 1952 PGA Championship in a 36-hole match that the winner played so many holes on the final day.

Daniel Summerhays birdied three of his last four holes for 66 to finish alone in third at 10 under, earning him his first trip to the Masters next year. The top four finishers get Masters spots.

Brooks Koepka, playing for the first time since he pulled out of the Bridgestone Invitational one month ago because of an ankle injury, didn't make a birdie until the 15th hole and closed with 70 to tie for fourth at 9 under with Branden Grace (67) and Hideki Matsuyama (68).

British Open champion Henrik Stenson, trying to join Ben Hogan as the only players to win back-to-back majors at age 40, finally faded away with a double bogey on the 15th hole.

"It was a long day. I never felt like I brought my 'A' game," said Stenson, who started the final round two shots behind and closed with 71 to finish 8 under. "I think I hit more poor shots in the two rounds (Sunday) than in the previous six or seven rounds combined."