PGA Notebook: Defending champ Walker hopes health allows for good week on links

Jimmy Walker watches his putt on the 18th hole during a practice round Tuesday for the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C. For the first time, the PGA of America is letting players wear shorts in practice rounds.
Jimmy Walker watches his putt on the 18th hole during a practice round Tuesday for the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C. For the first time, the PGA of America is letting players wear shorts in practice rounds. AP

Jimmy Walker is hoping he has one of his good weeks in the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club.

Not just with regards to his score, but also to his body.

The defending champion has been dealing with the effects of Lyme Disease at least since November, and has been taking medication to combat them since being diagnosed in early April.

Asked last week if he was ready to defend his PGA title, Walker paused before saying, “Honestly, I don’t know. Because I don’t know how I’ll feel day to day.”

Walker said he has felt good this week.

“I’m feeling better, a lot better than I have, and it’s nice,” Walker said. “I've got a lot more energy. I’m able to practice more and that’s just been something I’ve been kind of lacking. I do feel good on that front.”

Walker, who has no idea when he contracted the tick-borne bacterial illness, still has a ways to go in his battle.

He already has taken one course of antibiotics but might have to have another. He manages his symptoms, mainly flu-like maladies and fatigue, with supplements and Advil.

“I still have to deal with it, and it’s better than it was, but it’s still there,” Walker said. “It affects different parts of your daily life.”

Walker said in addition to the fatigue, the disease makes it more difficult for him to focus on a task at hand.

“It just kind of comes and goes,” Walker said. “I just try to be 100 percent committed on every shot and see it and feel it, and then try to execute it. It’s just really hard to describe. It’s hard to quantify why that happens, and is that why it’s happening. It’s tough. It’s a weird deal.”

His struggle has been evident in his results. The six-time PGA Tour winner has posted just one top-10 finish this season in 19 tournaments, coming in January at the SBS Tournament of Champions.

He played some of his best golf of the year last week, as he was leading the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational through two rounds after opening with rounds of 68 and 65 at Firestone Country Club before shooting 74 and 72 on the weekend to tie for 28th.

“It’s trending. It feels pretty good,” Walker said. “I had 54 solid holes last week and two nines that weren’t very good. But I think you take the positives from that and say, ‘Wow, I was making some birdies, I was leading the WGC.’ Things are looking good, honestly. That’s nice.”

The disease hasn’t kept him away from the tour, as Walker has played in 17 tournaments in 2017 alone, though he did take a month off between The Players and U.S. Open.

“To get sick and not feel well, not be able to work, not be able to practice and then have to take some time off for medication, I mean, you get that sensation like, ‘Wow, I’m really falling back,’ ” Walker said. “But we’ve just taken the mindset that it is what it is, and it’s just the way it is. We just keep working and we keep moving forward and we keep trying to get as healthy as possible and try to get back to 100 percent and just go from there.

“I know everybody likes time off from work, but I really don’t. I enjoy coming out and playing and competing, and when you can't do it at your best, it’s tough.”

Last year, Walker opened the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club with scores of 65 and 66 to tie the lowest opening 36-hole score in tournament history at 9-under 131, and had to play 36 holes Sunday because of weather delays. A par on the final hole gave him a one-stroke victory over Jason Day.

The Texan hasn’t had a lot of success at Quail Hollow. In eight starts in the Wells Fargo Championship from 2005-14, Walker has five missed cuts and a top finish of 22nd in 2013, though he has made three of his last four cuts on the course.

The century mark

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, competitors for nearly three decades, are each marking their 100th major championship this week. Lefty has five major titles and The Big Easy has four.

They become the 13th and 14th players to reach 100 majors. Jack Nicklaus tops the list with 164, and is followed by Gary Player, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd, Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw, Gene Sarazen, Tom Kite, Mark O'Meara, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo, who played his 100th major at St. Andrews in the British Open two years ago.

All of them are in the Hall of Fame, including Els and Mickelson.

“That’s pretty impressive, especially with how late they have won some majors as well with Ernie winning the Open in 2012 and Phil winning the Open in 2013, that’s into their 70s or 80s in terms of majors played,” Rory McIlroy said. “That’s pretty good longevity right there.”

Were it not for Tiger Woods, who has 79 PGA Tour titles and 14 major championships, Els and Mickelson would presumably have more PGA Tour wins and major titles.

Els, who has 19 PGA Tour wins, was runner-up seven times to Woods worldwide, including back-to-back majors in 2000. Mickelson, who has 42 wins on tour, lost out to Woods in the final group of the 2001 Masters, and he was runner-up to him at the U.S. Open the following year.

But Mickelson also gives Woods credit for some of his success.

“I feel as though had Tiger not come around, I don’t feel I would have pushed myself to achieve what I ended up achieving, because he forced everybody to get the best out of themselves,” Mickelson said. “He forced everybody to work a little bit harder. He forced everybody to look at fitness as a big part of the game of golf, and I think that’s actually helped me with longevity. … So I don’t think I would have had the same level of success had he not come around.”

The short version

For the first time, the PGA of America allowed participants in the PGA Championship to wear shorts in the days leading up to the tournament. The organization has a staunch policy that its club professionals – including 10 that have qualified for the tournament this week at Quail Hollow – must always wear full-length pants.

Many players took advantage of the new policy, and have enjoyed it.

“I think it’s good, especially when you come to hot climates like this,” Rory McIlroy said. “It makes the guys a lot more comfortable. I know walking 18 holes around here, if it was hot and humid and in the 90s, as it is here sometimes this time of year, shorts are very much appreciated.

“… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with professional golfers showing the lower half of their leg.”

Some players look better than others with some skin exposed.

“Everybody is razzing each other a little bit,” Walker said. “I think there are some guys that look really good in shorts and some guys that don’t look really good in shorts. It’s pretty funny. There are a lot of untanned legs. You can tell those Florida boys. You know they have been down there soaking the sun up. I’ve been up in Utah and I’ve been overseas for two weeks, wet and cold, so my legs aren’t very tan right now.”

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin