SAN MARTIN, Calif. — Jimmy Walker’s first PGA Tour trophy came with a special gift tucked inside.
A yellow “Masters 2014” flag.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that the Frys.com Open is no longer a Fall Series event for players to chase their Tour cards at the end of the year, but the start of the PGA Tour’s new 2013-14 season that comes with all the perks.
And it was a reminder to Walker that he gets to go places where he always felt he belonged.
In his eighth season and his 188th tournament – and with a little help from 23-year-old Brooks Koepka – Walker won a back-nine duel Sunday by making a 6-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole and closing with three pars for 5-under 66. That was more than enough for the 34-year-old Texan to win by two shots.
“This was the final stepping stone,” said Walker, who has played on more tours than he can remember to get to the big leagues.
It turned out to be a learning experience for Koepka, who had a four-shot lead with 11 holes remaining until he began missing short putts, all of them to the left. It started with a 3-foot par putt that he missed on the ninth hole. The most significant was a 6-foot birdie attempt on the 15th hole that would have matched birdies with Walker in the group ahead and regained a share of the lead.
Koepka bogeyed the next two holes and closed with 72 to tie for third.
“Things just weren’t going my way,” Koepka said. “I just didn’t make the shots I needed to win. Congrats to Jimmy on that. He played very well. But just try to learn from the whole experience. Any time you can put yourself in that kind of pressure, it’s always good. It you take something from it, that’s even better.”
Walker finished at 17-under 267 and cracked the top 50 in the world ranking for the first time.
Vijay Singh closed with 68 and wound up with the 27th runner-up finish of his Hall of Fame career, and his best result since he sued the PGA Tour in May over its procedure in investigating Singh’s admission that he used deer antler spray.
Koepka tied for third with Kevin Na (64), North Augusta native Scott Brown (64) and Hideki Matsuyama. Matsuyama, who played in the Presidents Cup last week, birdied his last three holes for 66.
Along with the Masters Tournament, Walker also gets to go to Maui in January for the Tournament of Champions, another place he has never been, and he is assured a spot in the PGA Championship for only the fourth time in his career.
“I felt like I was good enough to be in them, play in them,” Walker said. “There’s always this big pressure to get into Augusta, and I would press here, press there. You want to be playing in the big stuff. That’s what I’m aspiring to do – play against the world’s best.”
It won’t be his first trip to Augusta National.
Club member Paul Sarvadi invited Walker and his father about five years ago, one of Walker’s favorite memories even in the chill of winter and a light rain. His father, a scratch golfer who once shot 60, birdied three of the par 5s. Walker shot 72 one day, and played the back nine in 35.
“A cool experience,” he called it.
Koepka was playing on a sponsor’s exemption that he received without asking. Tournament officials identified him as a potential star when he started the year with no status on any tour, and then won three times on the Challenge Tour to earn his European Tour card. He qualified for the British Open the day after his third Challenge Tour win.
He was between stops in Scotland and Shanghai, and now his plans are slightly altered. Koepka’s finish gets him into Las Vegas next week before he goes back to the European Tour for the BMW Masters in China.
Billy Hurley III closed with a 68 and NCAA champion Max Homa from Cal birdied two of the last three holes to tie for ninth. That gets them in Las Vegas.
Koepka won all of his Challenge Tour events in Europe with the 54-hole lead, experience he figured could only help. For eight holes, he was on the verge of running away from the field. He rammed in a 45-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole to reach 17 under, and when Singh in group ahead three-putted the seventh for bogey from about the same range, Koepka had a four-shot lead.
It was gone in four holes.
Koepka had about a 15-foot birdie putt from the collar of the par-5 ninth green that went about 3 feet by the hole. But the stroke on his par putt looked a little quick, and it caught the left lip and spun out for a bogey. On the par-3 11th, he pulled a 6-foot par putt. That dropped him into a tie for the lead with Walker, who was in the group ahead and had made a 15-foot birdie on the eighth and a two-putt birdie from long range on the ninth.
Asked if there was a putt that unsettled him, Koepka said, “Maybe the putt on 9. That wasn’t very good.”
They traded birdies – Koepka with a 3-footer on the par-5 12th, Walker with a 30-foot putt from the fringe on the 13th, setting the stage for the decisive stretch at CordeValle – the par-5 15th that could be reached in two, the par-4 17th that played 297 yards over the water.
And that’s where it was decided.
“I can’t get too down on this week,” Koepka said. “I know I’ll be criticized. But this year has been amazing. This week I played well. It happens to the best of them.”