Jimmy Walker spent his six-shot lead right down to the 18th green at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and managed to make a 5-footer to win by one. He stood up from his crouch, a relieved smile on his face, and slouched his shoulders backward in a display of “that was close” relief. He had just won his third tournament in his eight-tournament season.
But there was a lot of drama. He began tentatively with a tee shot on the first that hit the fairway, but on the left side bank with the ball below his feet. The only problem was that the pin was just seven from the left and he tugged his approach shot into the left bunker on the slope above the hole. He hit a pretty amazing bunker shot below the hole, but he couldn’t make the 12-footer coming back.
But he cleaned that bogey up with an immediate birdie on the short, par-5 2nd hole. And cruised to a great birdie from four feet on the iconic 8th; love that approach shot across the ocean. So far so good; 1-under on the day. On to the back nine…
…where he bogeyed 10 from the fairway bunker; came out sideways, came up short of the green on the front pin, but got it up and down with a 3½ footer. But then he bounced back with a birdie on the short, par-4 11th. Okay, not so bad; still hanging in there at 1-under on the day.
The only problem was that Dustin Johnson was already through the 16th at 5-under on the day on his way to 10-under for the tournament and, less of a threat, Jim Renner was on a run through the 15th at 4-under that would eventually also take him to 10-under.
In other words, the noose was tightening; Walker’s 6-shot lead was slowly dwindling away, not just from his own actions, but from others’. And you can’t control what they do as we all know because they tell us so much.
And so off he went to a bogey on the par-3 12th; he hit too much club over the green and couldn’t get it up and down for want of a 20-footer. And then he killed his drive on 13 leaving just a sand wedge to the steeply banked green; don’t be long! And so he wasn’t, nonchalanting his wedge onto the front of the green and leaving himself almost 50 feet.
So when the home stretch is at hand, just how hard do you hit a steeply uphill putt without putting any pressure on yourself? Walker couldn’t be sure, blowing the putt 12 feet by and almost off the back of the green. Another bogey and falling to 12-under with Johnson in the clubhouse at 10-under…soon to be tied by Renner.
So on to the 14th, the hardest hole on the course and the hardest par-5s on the Tour. And he acquitted himself well, sailing his fairway wood approach shot onto the front of the elevated green, something few were able to do. It did roll off the back onto the groomed back slope, but it was an easy up and down for a birdie, or so it seemed until he ran his pitch shot 11½ feet by the hole…and missed it.
But pars are good under the gun and you think your lead might be slipping away. And so the pars on 15 and 16 were good too.
But he could only get his tee shot on the par-3 17th on the front right of the hourglass green with the pin on the back left some 24 feet away. Where he missed the 5½-foot second putt to 3-putt…and bogey again…and fall to only one shot away from Johnson and Renner.
I wasn’t in the best frame of mind [walking off 17], but I knew I still had a one-shot lead and it was just an iron off the tee and get it down there and have a wedge. And that’s what we did. And I made it a little more dramatic than it needed to be.
Now the good thing about this set of circumstances is that, because of his length off the tee, he had the entirely manageable par-5 18th to negotiate…if only it wasn’t the most famous par-5 in the world…if only the Pacific Ocean wasn’t splashing up on the rocks just below the seawall…if only there wasn’t out of bounds all down the right side…if only that damned tree out there in the right center of the fairway wasn’t there to block your second shot or kick your drive away to some crazy place…and if only he had that 6-shot cushion instead of just one.
What he did next was completely well thought out and a very rational choice, even if it didn’t quite work out; he hit an iron off the tee that he missed right of the fairway bunkers, oh, so close to the boundary and nestled down in course tufts of grass.
And what he did next was completely well thought out and really his only choice, if only he didn’t have to play his second shot by the tree, but, oh, so close to the boundary on the right of the cart path. It was just a simple middle iron layup, but it was hanging in the air for 190 yards and should have ended up in the fairway, not the right rough.
He hit a great shot out of the rough long right on the green when the pin was short right. That left him with a downhill, 30-footer to snuggle up, save his par, save the day and save his tournament that he was supposed to win.
My caddie and I were going, wouldn’t it be fun to walk down 18 and have a chance to win this thing on the 18th hole. And he reminded me about that, after I was kind of feeling down on the — after the two shots coming into the green. And I said, yeah, man, this is what it’s all about. This is why we are here.
He rolled it by 5 feet, I’m sure cringing with each inch it slipped away and leading to a prolonged pre-shot routine:
I tried to blank everything out that was going on. I just went about it, tried to go about it as businesslike as possible. I watched it going by, it was very straight, and I just — it started to curl off to the left, but I blocked everything out. Don’t watch the putt, keep your head down, stuff I probably should have thought about the last couple holes.
And he made it, of course. Because that’s what you do when you’re a two-time winner on a roll rather than a non-winner willing to be satisfied with a good showing. When you’re a winner, you know what to do. And you do it.
I struggled a little bit with the speed of the greens, on the uphill/downhill. And the two 3‑putts, I hate 3‑putting. I had two of them back there and definitely didn’t want another one on the last.
In the aftermath, Dustin Johnson was very satisfied with his outing. Winning is what it’s all about, but T2 with Renner has it’s own ample rewards:
I’m very pleased with the round. I made nine birdies. But I just hit a few poor shots on the par‑3s. I bogeyed 5, 7 and 12.
[But], it is my first week back and in like five weeks or something, so to be out here and contend and get the juices flowing here on the back nine. And I played really well coming down the stretch, so I’m very pleased with it. So I’m looking forward to next week.
And Renner was very happy with himself too, not so much because of the finish, but because he freed himself up. And it didn’t hurt that it was his first cut of the season in five attempts:
It was pretty big. I had been struggling a little bit and I really felt like I had dialed it in last week. I stayed in Phoenix and just practiced and then coming here this week, I just knew I needed a good week. My back was up against the wall and that’s something that I’m familiar with and I don’t mind it, but I’m happy that I freed myself up a little bit for the rest of the year.
This is a position that I would like to be in more often, so I might as well be as comfortable as I can be. That’s one of the things that I think kind of resonated with me is that I said, all right, it’s time to step up your game and when you are in this position, to be comfortable and just to go out there and have fun and get after it.
And so the circus moves on down the coast to Los Angeles and the Northern Trust Open at storied Riviera Country Club. And Jimmy Walker, the hottest player on the planet right now, plans to be there. And he loves the course.