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Lateral Hazard: How Jimmy Walker's Sony Open win may end up hurting him

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports
Sony Open in Hawaii - Final Round
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HONOLULU, HI - JANUARY 12: Jimmy Walker celebrates with the trophy after winning the the Sony Open in Hawaii at Waialae Country Club on January 12, 2014 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The first full-field event of the 2014 PGA Tour calendar year goes to a soft-spoken, big-hitting Texan named Jimmy Walker, and give him a moment before you high-five him – he might be busy studying congratulatory and cautionary texts from Ryan Palmer, Johnson Wagner and Russell Henley.

That's the curse of the Sony Open at Waialae. Because it's the lid-lifter in January, the post-Rose Bowl, post-Kapalua, pre-California Swing event, we tend to get all excited about it. Look! It's Honolulu! It's a full field! There's waves and surfers! Whoever wins this event must be awesome and destined to win the Grand Slam!

Or something like that.

So, the names of Palmer, Wagner and Henley were invoked to give an example. Each won the Sony Open: Palmer in 2010, Wagner in 2012, Henley in 2013, and each has yet to win since. All praise and career guarantees heaped upon them was likely premature. Or, to paraphrase Harvey Keitel's 'Wolf' from "Pulp Fiction", "Wellll … let's not start Sony-ing each other's Opens just yet."

With that caveat out of the way, how about that Jimmy Walker? What a story. The guy was full of promise and potential when he won the 2004 Nationwide Tour Player of the Year. He hurt his neck at the 2005 Sony Open, then foundered. He never won. He got into his mid-30s. He showed up at the season-opening Frys.Com Open at Northern California's CordeValle last October. He hung on for his first win in 188 starts, and now, after a gorgeous final round of 63 to come from two strokes down to win the Sony, he's the first multi-winner of the 2014 season.

Text that to your doubters.

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Jimmy Walker admires a drive during the final round of his second win of the 2014 season. (AP)

A back-nine 30 closed the deal, with a string of birdies on 15, 16 and 17 as the centerpiece. He made no bogeys in his 63, fitting for a guy who traveled around Tour in 2011 with his wife and family on an RV he called the 'Bogey Free Express'. Sunday's birdies were all born of Walker's monster tee shots – always a top-40 distance guy on Tour, Walker led the field at Sony in driving distance – and good looks from the fairway. A par save on 14 after he missed the green sure helped, and when the crowded field of competitors couldn't quite match Walker's finishing kick, right down to Chris Kirk's attempted eagle chip on the 72nd hole, Walker was able to produce this great statistic:

First 187 starts = Zero wins.

Last six starts = Two wins.

Johnny Miller was excited, saying he thinks big things are in store for Walker, a player who will turn 35 this week and may be figuring it out. He noted Walker's distance will play well at Augusta National, where Walker will play in his first Masters this April. Remember that for your late-round Masters draft pool, fantasy golf nuts.

Walker allowed that maturity and composure are learned, not natural instincts in his case. He said controlling emotions and controlling nerves on a Sunday back nine are the entire key, and that while Frys.Com helped him feel that, he needed to replicate it at Waialae. "It's easy to say," he noted to The Golf Channel's Steve Sands, "it's hard to do."

In the 2013 PGA Tour season, only Tiger Woods won more than one tournament. The 2014 season began last fall, and now Walker has two wins already. That has to count for something, Sony Open curse be damned.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

68-69-71-68 – 12-under 276, Louis Oosthuizen, winner, European Tour Volvo Golf Champions, Durban Country Club, Durban, South Africa.

Louis Oosthuizen, as I live and breathe. Where you been, mate?

A birdie-birdie finish for the South African netted him his first win since this very tournament a year ago, which may surprise you considering Oosthuizen owns perhaps the finest golf swing on God's green Earth.

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Louis Oosthuizen gives a little love to the crowd in Durban. (Getty)

It's the Ferrari of golf swings, which may explain why Oosthuizen doesn't win more. His body is as high-strung and maintenance-heavy as a Ferrari.

The lower back is the latest consistent problem for Oosthuizen, and it's prevented the 2010 Open Championship winner at St. Andrews from reaching the great heights some of us predicted for him, including those who may have spent a first-round fantasy golf draft pick on him last year. Not that I know anybody like that. Cough, cough.

An Oosthuizen neck injury forced him to withdraw from last June's U.S. Open at Merion. He then withdrew again from the Open Championship at Muirfield and didn't even bother playing the PGA Championship at Oak Hill. He basically stopped playing for the summer and fall of 2013 to rest. His enormous potential mixed with his frustrating injuries makes him sort of the Bill Walton of golf, minus the wacked-out, stream-of-consciousness Grateful Dead allusions in everyday conversation.

With the win at Durban, Oosthuizen jumps from No. 34 to No. 27 in the Official World Golf rankings and we can only hope this means we get to see that mellifluous golf swing more often in 2014. The guy they call "Shrek" for his gap-toothed grin and solid frame warned us, though. He said he has a few "niggles" to work out in his back, and while I have no idea what a "niggle" is, I only wish Oosthuizen a niggle-free golf season.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"Eat it up!" – off-screen voice, presumably belonging to Jimmy Walker's caddie, as Walker's approach on No. 13 tracked toward the flag at Waialae.

It had to be Walker's caddie, and I just loved how the verbiage fit the moment.

Walker had roasted another drive, and had 196 in to the difficult, 478-yard par-4. No. 13 was not playing as a birdie hole. Of the top seven finishers at the Sony, only 47-year-old Jerry Kelly, who had a heck of a week and grinned all the while, made birdie on it, other than Walker.

Walker's approach was hungry, and gobbled up turf as it landed and rolled close to the flagstick for a key Walker birdie. "Eat it up", indeed. Soup's on!

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Speaking of the Volvo Champions in South Africa, did you happen to see Charl Schwartzel's early entry for Ludicrously Awesome Golf Shot of the Year? By now, many of you have, if you read Yahoo's Devil Ball Golf.

It's worth a review. Schwartzel sliced his drive on the par-4 16th, and found it between two rows of dense trees, lying on a maintenance road. What to do?

You or I, we either: a) Take a drop and try to hack it thru the forest, surely leading to a dreaded 'other'; or, b) Laugh, crack a beer and tell your playing compadres you'll see them on the 17th tee.

Schwartzel went for it. He smoked an iron off the pavement, drew it over the forest and absurdly landed it five feet from the pin, a Harlem Globetrotters-like bit of insanity that will never be replicated, even with a bucket of balls and a case of beer handy.

I'm wondering what he said to his caddie. "Looper: What's my play here?" What does the caddie say? "Uh, I dunno, boss . . . Smoke an iron off the tarmac, draw it hard, and leave it five feet for bird?" How does a caddie even get a good yardage for that?

Well-done, Charl. We won't mention that you missed the putt. Instead, we'll say: That was so fantastic, so unlikely, so worth seeing again, let's go back out to that maintenance road, drop Schwartzel's ball there again, make him prove to us he can do it at will, give him 'take two', and . . . give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Aloha, sweet leilani, heavenly flower. We bid farewell to the 50th state for yet another year, meaning no more sun-splashed shots of Hawaiian beaches while the Eastern half of America shivers its coconuts off.

It's on to California's Coachella Valley, and more sunshine, for the old Bob Hope Classic-turned-Humana Challenge in La Quinta. It should be gorgeous in SoCal, temperatures in the high 70s and birdies crowding the leaderboard like old Hollywood stars used to crowd the local watering holes. Any region that has a Frank Sinatra Drive, a Gene Autry Trail and a Jack Benny Road is good by me. I miss the 20th century.

The field is light, golf fans. Only five of the top 30 players in the world are committed, but Zach Johnson's bringing his wedge game, and local boy Rickie Fowler is playing. No Jimmy Walker. He's taking some time off for a victory lap.

 

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