Rookie Walker, 35, has chance to win Masters


AUGUSTA, Ga. — Both veteran and rookie, Jimmy Walker has the game and the guts to rewrite history at The Masters.

At 35, he is a decade or more older than many of the other 17 first-time pros at Augusta National. Knocking around what is now the Web.com Tour for a few years, he played in Arkansas a couple of times and didn’t become a factor on the PGA Tour until 2011.

A “can’t miss” out of Baylor more than a dozen years ago, grinding out a living by winning such tournaments as the Chitimacha Louisiana Open and the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic will toughen a man.

The right stuff between the ears and his skill were equal parts of a run of four straight birdies that produced a solid 70 on Thursday. Watching from outside the ropes, he moved the ball left to right and right to left on cue and consistently outdrove Rickie Fowler and Graeme McDowell by a couple of first downs.

He impressed time after time, none more than on the par three sixth when he took note of minute mistakes by Fowler and McDowell and adjusted. McDowell missed the table-for-eight plateau where the pin was located by a matter of inches and faced a 70-foot putt. Fowler landed on the proper area, but spun the ball off the green.

Walker’s tee shot had no spin and he converted from six feet.

Even par after nine, Walker missed a 10-foot birdie putt on No 10, turned one of the best drives of the day into a play-safe bogey on No. 11, and butchered the easy 13th with wide right tee shot and par putt miss from 4 feet.

Bobbles like that can wear on a golfer, particularly one with high expectations rooted in his three PGA Tour victories since mid-October, and he told the media that the round could have gone either way. “ … You can’t do that to yourself,” he said. “It’s a long week.”

His response:

• No. 14, from the fairway on the 440-yard hole, he carried a hump on the left side of the green with a sand wedge and made a 10-foot putt

• No. 15, if he is in contention on the weekend, be prepared for some side by side footage from Thursday and 1992. Dead even with the sprinkler that marks 224 to the front of the green, Walker mishit his second. His ball landed on the bank in front of the green, started towards the pond, and then stopped on the hazard line. When Fred Couples won 22 years ago, his tee shot on No. 12 on Sunday defied gravity and remained dry. Walker crafted an impeccable chip shot, playing 10 feet of break with a low scooter, and made birdie.

• No. 16, a 7-iron dead at the flag and another short putt.

• No. 17, a drive up the left side, leaving the best angle to a pin on the back right. Again, with the dead hands and no spin and a 6-foot birdie putt. The zip-back that wows some is to be avoided when the greens are slick and the ball takes to trucking down a slope as it does at Augusta National.

Asked why no first-timer has won The Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said Tuesday: “ … first of all, you’ve got to get over being here,.”

Although it was only Thursday, Walker looked and sounded like a man who handled that assignment. He admitted to jitters on the first green, but embraced the moment to the point that he called it cool.

Among the rookies, Jonas Blixt posted the first 70. No other first-timer did any better and Bill Haas’ was the first-round leader with a 68.

The 97-man field includes 20 or more who have no chance — the six amateurs, plus Couples and several other former champions. Prominent among those who can win is Walker.

Harry King is a sports columnist. His email isHLeonK42@gmail.com.