WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — After years of chasing leaders on the PGA Tour, Jimmy Walker is being the chased.
And the Tour’s points leader is the top target of good-natured by hard-edged barbs from the chasers. That’s particularly true where Bubba Watson, the second-place pursuer, is involved.
Even Watson’s compliments of Walker come with a backhanded jab: “Jimmy Walker is a good putter. I’m mad at him for that.”
Shoot, even Walker’s caddy, Andy Sanders, is catching it these days.
“They’ve got the gold bib going on this year,’’ Walker said. “so if you lead the FedExCup [points standings], you get to wear the gold bib. Caddies razz him, they call him ‘Gold Bib,’ ‘Superstar’ and that type of thing.”
At the Greenbrier Classic, Walker returns to action for the first time since the U.S. Open, his 20th event of the year. He has been largely successful on the Old White course, racking up two fourth-place finishes and one runner-up.
But this time, he comes here with a No. 17 world ranking and the top spot in the FedExCup standings. He has 2,322 points to 2,083 for Watson, a 239-point edge. Nobody else in the field can catch either player.
Each regular Tour event awards 500 points to the champion, 300 for a solo second place and 190 for a solo third. Putting this week’s situation in simplest terms, a Watson victory and a Walker tie for second gives Watson’s caddy the gold bib.
Or if Walker misses the cut, Watson can take the lead with a two-way tie for second.
Sure, there are 154 other competitors teeing off Thursday, and banking on a certain player to win is a futile exercise. But this matchup provides one of the juiciest plots of the weekend.
Walker has won three tournaments in this 2013-14 format, the first wraparound season in the Tour’s history. Watson has won twice, including his second Masters in three years. Money-wise, Watson is leading that race, $5.01 million to $4.93 million.
In their own ways, this is a breakthrough season.
That seems to be a weird statement about Watson, who has won six events and amassed more than $23 million in his nine years on the PGA Tour. But much has changed in his life in recent years, and it showed Tuesday in his relaxed, oft-comedic press conference.
These days, you won’t get through a longer public interview session without Watson talking about his “little man,” son Caleb. He brought that up in discussing his week’s activities so far.
“My little man rode a horse the other day,” he said. “I guess you call it riding the horse; somebody was holding the horse and we were holding him, but at 28 months old, he thinks he’s doing something cool.”
Watson, ranked third in the world, got back on the proverbial horse after missing the cut at the U.S. Open. He played the next week at the Travelers Championship near Hartford, Conn., finishing in a tie for 31st.
That won’t happen forever. In addition to his two victories, he owns two seconds, a third, seven top-10s and eight top-25s. His missed cut at the U.S. Open was just the ninth in four years.
And this week, he enjoys a home advantage — literally, to some degree. He began his part-time residence in a new house near The Greenbrier resort.
As he explains it, his road to White Sulphur Springs grew out of the friendship between him and wife Angie and Scott and Jennifer Stallings. Stallings had a tremendous experience at the 2011 Classic, both on and off the course. (He won in a three-way playoff.) Other players such as Webb Simpson gave glowing recommendations.
The Watsons were looking at buying a second home, be it a farm or a mountain home. When they made it to the 2013 Classic, they were hooked — and this week, feel right at home.
Not that Walker feels out of place here.
His history in West Virginia has been as profitable with anybody’s, beginning with a win in the Nationwide Tour’s Pete Dye Classic in Bridgeport. He owns two fourth-place finishes at the Greenbrier, plus his tie for second next year. He was in the final twosome with 54-hole leader Johnson Wagner, but shot a 71 and was passed by winner Jonas Blixt.
Walker doesn’t outdrive Watson, but is still 16th on the Tour (302.8). He is eighth in scoring average (69.746) and second average birdies per round (4.37). Watson’s admission of Walker’s putting is illustrated by the byzantine strokes gained-putting stat — Walker is calculated to gain .885 strokes per round on the greens.
That has added up to Walker’s breakthrough season. He has improved almost every year since joining the big tour in 2005, but he hasn’t been this proficient.
So he feels at home on Old White. Watson feels at home in the neighborhood — and he’s ready to stake his claim for No. 1 in the FedExCup.
And tell Walker all about it.
“Even if I didn’t have a house here, it would be great to win here,” Watson said. “But having my own bed, all that stuff, it would be really good to pull off a victory here and have a ‘W,’ and I can rub it in Jim’s face when I see him.”
Game on, come Thursday.
To reach Doug Smock, call 304-348-5130, e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.