Jimmy Walker and Steve Stricker are both playing in the 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., this week, in search of their first major championship. Should either prevail, Baltusrol would be a fitting breakthrough site, as both can point to formative experiences that occurred there in USGA championships.
Walker, 37, has demonstrated this week that his game and Baltusrol’s Lower Course are a good fit. Heading into the third round, he and Robert Streb share the lead after tying the championship’s 36-hole scoring record at 9-under 131. When he first teed it up on the Lower Course as a 21-year-old in the 2000 U.S. Amateur, the affinity was not apparent.
“I remember it was a lot of golf course for me,” said Walker after his 65 in Round 1 on Thursday. He shot 73 in his one competitive round on the Lower Course in 2000, pairing it with a 74 on the Upper Course to miss match play, which was contested on the Upper Course, by a single stroke. Walker is one of eight players in this week’s PGA field who played in that U.S. Amateur. “I don’t know if I was quite ready to play something like that. I remember this place being really cool, but it was tough.”
More important than missing out on match play that week was a friendship that developed out of the experience. Walker played a practice round with fellow-competitor Andy Sanders, and they became close friends. When Sanders’ playing career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, he became Walker’s caddie, a partnership that continues to this day.
For Stricker, Baltusrol marked the beginning of a career in major championships that, while devoid of a victory, is defined by consistency. This week marks the 67th major start for the 12-time PGA Tour winner, and the 53rd time that he has made the 36-hole cut. It was in the 1993 U.S. Open on the Lower Course that he made the weekend in his major-championship debut, though it almost didn’t happen.
“I have a memory of coming down here [on 18] to watch [eventual champion] Lee Janzen, and if he makes birdie he knocks a bunch of us out. I would have been one of those guys,” said Stricker, one of five players in the field this week who competed in that U.S. Open. “He ended up making par and let a bunch of us in. I remember I was sweating it out, just hoping to make the cut.”
Stricker, who finished 83rd that year, has made the cut in 22 consecutive starts in majors. His best finish in a major is second, when he lost by two strokes in the 1998 PGA at Sahalee Country Club to Vijay Singh. His second-best finish was two weeks ago, when he came in fourth in The Open Championship at Troon, a distant 15 strokes behind Henrik Stenson. He has posted 13 top-10 performances in majors since that week at Baltusrol 23 years ago, when he was a newcomer to golf’s most prestigious events.
“I was probably way more nervous and way more excited, not knowing what to expect in 1993,” said Stricker, who ended Friday tied for 34th with a score of 1-under 139. “I was so green under the collar, and coming in this time around, not that it’s old hat, but you know what to expect, you know what the course is going to be like, somewhat, you know how they’re going to set it up, so there’s not that apprehension.”
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