New year. Old season.
Even with the PGA Tour going to a wraparound season that began in October, it was somewhat startling to see that Jimmy Walker already has accumulated a healthy lead in the FedEx Cup and was No. 1 in the Ryder Cup standings. And it's still in January.
How he got there was no accident.
Three months after he won the 2013-14 season opener at the Frys.com Open, Walker emerged from a tight race Sunday on the back nine of Waialae Country Club with one big par and three straight birdies. He closed with a 7-under 63 and won the Sony Open by one shot over Chris Kirk.
"I've always felt like I belonged, and you need affirmation every now and then," he said. "The other win was like, 'Yeah, OK, I can do it.' I did it, and I was supposed to be able to do it. Everybody told me I was supposed to do it, and I finally did it. And then it's, 'Well, are you going to be the guy that won that you never hear from again?' It's nice to get it done and do it again today."
There was a five-way tie for the lead as the final groups were making the turn. There were four players still in the thick of contention with an hour to go. Kirk made his move too late, finishing birdie-birdie for a 66. He missed a 30-foot chip for eagle from short of the green on the par-5 18th that would have forced a playoff.
Harris English had the lead with four holes to play until he failed to save par from a bunker on the 15th, and then missed three birdie chances the rest of the way, two of them from inside 10 feet. He closed with a 67 and finished three shots back.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that those three players had the best shot at winning. They all won tournaments last fall when the wraparound season began — Walker at the Frys.com Open, Kirk at the McGladrey Classic, English at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico.
No matter what the calendar says, it feels as though nothing has changed.
"Guys get into grooves and they've all been playing really well," Walker said. "I think it's cool. Everybody makes a big deal about being No. 1 on the FedEx and stuff, and it is cool and it is a big deal. ... I know it's January. It's a long way to September, and every little bit helps."
Every putt helped on this wild day along the shores down from Waikiki Beach.
Walker had the right recipe when he began the final round two shots out of the lead. He had made eight bogeys during a tame week at Waialae, and he felt they were holding him back. He figured if he could keep bogeys off his card, he had enough good shots in his bag to give himself a reasonable chance.
And that's how it played out.
English dropped one shot on the front nine that didn't hurt. The bogey on the back nine did. Jerry Kelly, who closed with a 65 and finished alone in third, hit a poor chip on the 14th hole that led to bogey and he didn't regain the momentum until it was too late.
It was on the 14th hole that everything changed for Walker. He had an awkward stance near the bunker and chipped weakly to 12 feet, on the same line as the putt Kelly faced. Walker felt like it broke to the left, and watching Kelly's putt do just that only affirmed what he was thinking.
Walker poured it in and he was on his way.
"The par was big," he said. "The par putts sometimes are bigger than the birdie putts. It's all about momentum, and if I'd have missed that, it would have been a little different, I think."
He followed that with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 15th, a 7-foot birdie on the 16th that gave him a two-shot lead, and a 7-iron to 6 feet on the tough par-3 17th that all but put it away. He finished at 17-under 263.
Walker had gone 187 tournaments in seven years on the PGA Tour without winning, and now he has won twice in six starts.
"It took me a long time to do it," Walker said. "I felt very calm and controlled. That's what you've got to feel and do when it's time to win. It's easy to say, hard to do. But today was awesome. Really cool golf."
Back to the calendar.
Tiger Woods hasn't played a PGA Tour event this season. Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson have played twice. The season is young, yet those two victories by could go a long way toward places Walker only dreamed of going — East Lake for the Tour Championship, Scotland for the Ryder Cup.
For the moment, he was headed home to Texas to take a week off and perhaps spend time with his favorite hobby — astronomy. His wife bought him a telescope years ago, and it's now stationed in New Mexico where he can operate it remotely. As he sat by the trophy, Walker noticed the Golf Channel had a photo of Orion's Sword that he had taken. For Walker, the stars have aligned rather nicely.