It started as a hobby. Jimmy Walker would gaze up at the stars, his mind piecing together the celestial patterns and constellations. He bought a telescope when he was younger, but he could never make out much. Needed more power, more practice.
So he started to dig a little deeper, dissecting the sky the same way he would dissect a golf course.
“I started reading and learning on how you would get into attaching cameras and stuff to a telescope,” Walker said. “Then I just — with my personality to want to be good at something, I just took it to a whole other level.”
It is safe to say that Walker, an eight-year PGA Tour veteran, is the only player at the 78th annual Masters with his own astrophotography equipment situated in a remote part of New Mexico.
The high-powered Celestron CGE Pro 1400 HD telescope sits high on a mountaintop, surveying the stars and relaying the photos to Walker’s computer on the road. It’s painstaking work, but whenNASA recognizes one of your photos
, you know you’ve done it right.
“All I’m doing is taking pretty pictures,” Walker said.
So on Sunday night, as Walker laid in bed and thought about the biggest week of his professional career, the Celestron fired off a few more rounds of photos.
“It was working last night,” Walker said.
From the cosmos to the golf course, plenty of things have been working for Walker, who has rocketed to stardom this season with three PGA Tour victories and a No. 1 ranking in the FedEx Cup standings.
For a 35-year-old grinder like Walker, a Baylor graduate who spent years toiling on the minor-league tours, it’s been a fulfillment of years of deliberate study and execution. After pocketing just $605,213 in PGA Tour earnings during 2001 to 2008, Walker has cashed in with nearly $4 million in prize money over 13 events this season.
Walker, of course, is still not a household name among casual golf fans. But here he is, no longer just studying the stars — he’s now a comet, burning through a Tiger-less galaxy here at Augusta National Golf Club.
“It’s just kind of odd,” Walker said. “I was in a parking lot the other day at home (in Texas), and I was coming out of the grocery store and this guy rolls down his window and starts yelling at me, ‘Way to go!’
“That’s changed a little bit.”
Now comes the next challenge: When the first round begins Thursday, Walker will attempt to become the first Masters rookie to capture the green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
“I’m here to have a chance,” Walker said. “Why couldn’t a rookie win again?”
There are reasons, of course, that the Masters is not kind to rookies. This is a place for veterans, for course surgeons who have spent years learning the intricacies of the hallowed grounds. Unlike golf’s three other major championships, the course is often the biggest star at Augusta. That first loop through Amen Corner can leave anybody shaken.
Walker, though, is among 24 first-timers taking part in this week’s tournament. With Tiger Woods absent from the Masters for the first time since 1994, there is no consensus favorite. As a result, rookies such as Walker, Harris English and Jordan Spieth have emerged as trendy choices to win.
“I think this tournament is — just like any other year, I think is wide open,” said veteran Steve Stricker, still looking for his first major victory.
It took Walker more than 13 years of professional golf before he won his first PGA event, a victory at the season-opening Frys.com Open that clinched his first Masters appearance. But he quickly backed it up with wins at the Sony Open in Honolulu and at Pebble Beach. By the third title, he had joined Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval as the only golfers in the last 20 years to win three times in their first eight PGA events.
But Walker is a golfer who appears to be as much about process as he is the result. So while his status began to grow, he stayed with the same routine.
“I think you’ve got to sit back and reflect on everything that happened and what you learned from each experience,” Walker said.
Most nights, he would call up the software on his laptop and work on his latest astrophotography project. The hobby is now something closer to a passion project, but the process is the same. The images will filter back to his computer, and he’ll search for a new way to illuminate some little detail.
“I’ll see an object and think, ‘Wow, that looks like fun,’ I’m going to go take a shot at that one and see if I can do better than what I think is … see if I can improve on it, make it better.”
The focus on the details, the little improvements, the way to shape a new shot, that’s what has kept Walker looking at the sky. Sometimes, Walker says, it will take a little bit of time to make the shot perfect. Mostly, though, the wait is worth it.
“I have some stuff I haven’t put out just because I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten it right,” Walker says. “So it is art and if I don’t like it, I won’t put it out.”