THE HORSEHEAD NEBULA. Orion’s Sword. The Christmas Tree Cluster. The Sagittarius Triplets. These are the interstellar things I see and photograph through astrophotography, my big passion outside of golf. Basically it consists of photographing distant galaxies and nebulae through a telescope. It’s more complicated than I can describe in a few minutes, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it and am getting better. My photograph of the Iris Nebula was chosen as the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day last Aug. 2. If you want to sample some of my work, go to jwalk.smugmug.com. Not to brag, but you might have a hard time believing a pro golfer shot that stuff.
YOU CAN’T LOOK at the night sky through a telescope and not start to wonder about our place in the universe. The planet Earth amounts to a single atom within a single grain of sand amid all of the beaches on the globe. The vastness of it is something you cannot get your head around. Some of the things I photograph are millions of light-years away, which means we’re looking at something in the very distant past. We’re talking objects that are estimated to be 13 billion years old. You gaze at these things and ponder them, and if you’re not in a good place mentally, it can be a disconcerting, sobering experience. You can start to feel very lonely, very fast. The origins of the universe are simply unknowable, and I say that with great respect for those with a spiritual bent.
YOU ASK whether intelligent life exists elsewhere and whether aliens have visited Earth. Well, for intelligent life to exist, it would have to be in what’s known as the Goldilocks Zone, which describes planets that are the right size, the right distance to be warmed from a neighboring star, and so on. The nearest Goldilocks Zone is so far away, I can’t imagine that aliens—if they exist—could visit Earth.
TIGER WOODS IN 2000. Now there was a guy in golf’s Goldilocks Zone. Golf never was played as well before that and hasn’t been since. He was barely human, right?
WHENEVER I GET on the verge of losing my temper, I think back to what my dad told me when I was a kid: “Don’t act like a punk.” He actually put it in harsher terms than that, and it’s pulled me back every time I’ve flirted with a meltdown. I’ve broken a few clubs, sure. A busted 3-wood at Spyglass Hill comes to mind. But the odd broken club is therapeutic—necessary, even—to keep your sanity. I broke a club in a tournament one time and, feeling guilty about it, was commiserating with another player after the round. He said, “Jimmy, never start to apologize unless you broke two.”
THE TOURNAMENT outside of pro golf I look forward to most is the Cordillera Cup. It’s basically the Developer versus the Land Owner here at Cordillera Ranch, just north of San Antonio. Mr. Hill is the developer, Mr. Northington the land owner. These two titans of the club choose sides, and we go against each other in some intense Ryder Cup-style competition played over two days. It’s a Hatfields-versus-McCoys-type deal that’s easygoing at first but grows more intense as it draws near. Insults, most of them good-natured, fly everywhere. A video, filled with pointed and funny scenes, is shown at the opening dinner. I’ve always been on the Developer team, and in eight playings, we’ve never won. Mr. Hill wants revenge. The next Cordillera Cup might not be pretty.
IF YOU’VE EVER WHINED about giving shots, consider that in my singles match in the Cordillera Cup, I had to play at plus-10. Ridiculous. I had to give nine shots to a stud who’s an honest plus-1. On a tough, windy day, my opponent played pretty well. But playing one of my best rounds of the year, I birdied the last two holes to win, 1 up.
THE DISCONTENT behind the scenes at the last Ryder Cup was impossible not to notice. But I didn’t feel it was my place to comment one way or the other, it being my first Ryder Cup. I sort of kept it at arm’s length and focused on the good stuff. There was plenty of it. The team all got along real well, spirit was high, and the dissension was small. I kept my nose out of it.
BEST RYDER CUP TEAMMATE: Zach Johnson. He was always there, not just with rah-rah encouragement but excellent advice and the right words at the right time. Jordan Spieth was a close second. His energy and enthusiasm were a blast to watch. I was sitting next to Jordan at the opening ceremonies, and the way he couldn’t sit still reminded me of a kid. Heck, he is a kid. And then there’s Rickie Fowler. Watching the way European crowds responded to him, you almost couldn’t tell what side he played for. Rickie’s appeal is truly global. A personality like that transcends borders. Everyone loves Rickie, and he loves them back.
THE GUY I WASN’T SURE ABOUT WAS Patrick Reed, because he’s so quiet and remote. But after I sat next to him on a couple of bus rides, I discovered he’s simply a totally confident person. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the Ryder Cup. It was reassuring, knowing how in control he really was. He was a sneaky-good teammate. Patrick and his wife, Justine, hung out in the team room a long time, and everyone got to know them a lot better.
WHAT BUMMED ME OUT was that the sanctity of the team room was blown up to the point there was no sanctity at all. When we presented the [replica] trophy to Tom Watson on Saturday night, some nasty things were leaked about things Tom supposedly said. From everything I’ve learned, it was not a player who broke the code and divulged everything that happened. There were outsiders in the team room, people from outside our camp. I don’t know who it was who ratted us out, but I refuse to believe it was anyone even remotely connected to the American side.
THERE ARE GUYS you’ve never heard of who drive the ball better than anybody I’ve seen on the PGA Tour. Coming up, I saw short games every PGA Tour player would die to have. One reason you never heard of these players is because their games don’t travel. There were grasses they couldn’t play from, types of green complexes they couldn’t deal with, greens they couldn’t read. I’d put my money on the guy who can shoot 65 on Poa annua in California, then, two weeks later, shoots 65 off bentgrass in New Jersey.
SWINGING A GOLF CLUB is sort of a throwing action, and even as a kid I could throw things far and fast. In Little League back in Oklahoma, I struck out 14 batters in a six-inning game, and we won the state championship. Today, at 35, I can throw a small football close to 80 yards—and straighter than I can hit a golf ball.
MY FIRST TOURNAMENT as a professional was the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. On my way to the first tee on Thursday, I hear a voice from the crowd yell, “Jimmy Walk!” Hearing my nickname from when I was a boy stops me. I look over, and it’s my coach from Little League. Coach Bennett. And what does Coach Bennett say as I’m ready for the biggest moment in my golf life? “I still think you should’ve been a pitcher.”
NATIONWIDE TOUR, LATE SUMMER, 2007. I’d just had a lousy finish in Rochester and was driving to the next tournament. After six years as a pro my career hadn’t gone anywhere. Funds were running low, I’d never had a job outside of playing golf, and I was feeling dead-ended. I phoned my wife, Erin, and broached the idea of the two of us getting real jobs and going with a different plan for our lives. She said, “The guy I married has never quit at anything. This is what we decided to do. You’ve got to keep going.” When both people are crying on a long-distance call, that’s rock bottom. The next week in West Virginia was the hottest weather I’d ever played golf in. Just putting one foot in front of the other, I somehow won the tournament. It didn’t turn everything around. After I got to the PGA Tour, I had trouble keeping my card for a couple of years. But when you reach bottom like I did that week in Rochester and bounce back, it shows that anything is possible.
EVERYONE NEEDS SOMEONE in their life who lifts them up, encourages them, tells them how great they are. When I was 13 and just starting in golf, I played with David Ogrin, a tour player. The way he hit the ball and the fact he played professionally made him a giant to me. Some time went by, and then one day I got a handwritten letter from David. In it he told me how good he thought I could be. How, if I kept trying, I could make most pros’ achievements look small by comparison. I can’t tell you how many times I read that letter over the years and how much it’s done for me. It’s still on my wall today.
THE BEST THING for your game is a dedicated group of golf buddies. A regular game will get you to the course in lousy weather. It makes playing a priority. They keep you competitive, give you an incentive to improve. At Cordillera, there’s a regular group of eight of us. We mix up the games, everything from Wolf to mini-games within the group—one-on-four, two-on-three, one-on-two, all kinds of stuff. And when we’re done, we hang out. Playing the PGA Tour is for now and the immediate future. Golf buddies are forever.