LOS ANGELES -- Jimmy Walker was making a pretty good living at golf, not that he was feeling all that good about it.
In 2006, Walker played in 21 events on the PGA Tour. He failed to make the cut in 12 of them. His best finish was 24th.
He made $154,000 that year.
He played 77 events in his career without a top-10 finish. At the end of the 2009 season, he ranked 125th on the tour money list.
"I kept finishing 120th, 125th, 100th," Walker said. "It's a grind."
The money was good enough, and getting better. In 2010, he made the cut half the time, finished as high as third, and made $938,000. But the romanticism of life as a professional athlete is easily lost amid week after week on the road, and month after month of watching someone else win.
"I didn't want to stay out here and keep grinding and beating myself up," he said. "I think I remember saying, 'I'd rather stay home. I think I can get a pretty good job and make about the same amount of money and be home and enjoy it.'"
As the PGA Tour arrives at Riviera Country Club this week for the Northern Trust Open, Walker is an overnight sensation a dozen years in the making.
Walker has won two of his last three events, including last weekend's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He has three victories in eight events this season, after none in his first 187. He won $1.19 million last weekend, with season earnings -- in a season that began in October -- already at $3.6 million.
He could afford to fly the family here from Pebble Beach, first class, and stay in the finest hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He took the RV, the one with 43,000 miles on it, with his wife and two boys. The older one is 3. The younger turns 1 next week.
"We get to keep all the toys for the boys in there, and it's a sense of home for them, I think, on the road," Walker said. "It's nice that I get to sleep in the same bed every night -- same sheets and pillow -- and know I'm going to sleep good."
He is 35, the tortoise to Tiger Woods' hare.
"I think the older you get, the harder it is to take advice from people," Walker said.
He might not have been winning all those years, but he was making a decent living on the tour.
"I wasn't having much fun playing golf," he said. "I felt like I was out there killing myself and didn't have a lot to show for it.
"I wanted to win, and it wasn't happening."
Walker got himself into better shape. He worked with Butch Harmon, Woods' old coach, to get his swing into better shape. The results followed -- not the wins right away, but a second, third and fourth last season, with earnings of $2.2 million.
Now he is leading the money list, and he can hardly play a round without someone asking him about the possibility -- the likelihood, really -- of representing the United States in the Ryder Cup for the first time.
"I don't know if it's because I haven't been on the radar screen or what, but it seems like it's a very big, pressing thing," Walker said.
Walker himself is the next big thing -- right here, right now. The last four golfers to win three of the first eight events in a PGA Tour season: Walker, Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval.
To the casual sports fan, Woods and Mickelson are golf. Neither one will be at Riviera this week, but Walker would be happy for fans to keep an eye on the tournament anyway.
"The two guys that everybody is talking about that are not here, what they have done in their careers is amazing," Walker said. "I'd like to think that the year I'm having so far is really cool. It's fun for me. It's fun for everybody.
"I know we get stuck on guys -- it's great for the sport and they have done so much for the sport. But everybody's got a really cool story, and I think it's just a matter of hearing it."
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