This week’s Sony Open in Hawaii is a special place for Jimmy Walker. It is where he has won two of his six PGA Tour titles, including in 2014 when he began to solidify himself as an emerging player with his second win and three years ago when he triumphed by nine strokes.
But even a trip to the tropical locale of Oahu — along with those good vibes that surround the Waialae Country Club — cannot wipe away Walker’s struggles over the past year and how difficult life has been for a player who hoped to build on his 2016 PGA Championship victory.
Walker, who turns 39 on Jan. 16, was diagnosed in April with Lyme disease, a bacterial illness that took months to diagnose and can cause flu-like symptoms and general malaise.
Even after various treatments, Walker suffered from effects of the illness, making it difficult to practice and compete throughout 2017. He took many fall events off trying to get healthy and returns this week after playing only once since August.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s got it that can really describe it to you, but it’s just not fun,” Walker said. “It puts you in a bad mood. You don’t feel good. You feel awful, like a lot. … I’ve been very tired and fatigued and no strength and it comes and goes.”
In various interviews over the past several months, Walker’s wife, Erin, noted how difficult it was for her husband to deal with the disease. She painstakingly sought treatment options.
Then, in a cruel twist, Erin Walker was diagnosed with Lyme disease in December. The disease is not transmittable and, like her husband, she is not certain how or where she contracted it.
“What works for one person with Lyme doesn’t necessarily work for someone else,” Erin Walker wrote on her personal blog last week. “But the biggest thing we can do is share what we are going through. We want people to be aware that this strange and horrible disease can happen to anyone.”
Jimmy Walker believes he contracted the illness on a hunting trip in November 2016 — although he never saw any of the deer ticks associated with Lyme disease, nor did he have a rash that often accompanies a tick bite.
Soon after, he joined Rickie Fowler as U.S. teammates for the World Cup in Australia “and I just started feeling awful.”
“I mean, awful, awful,” he said. “And it continued through the winter. And I just felt like I was getting the flu about every other week, like a full-on flu. No energy. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening.
“And it’s not something you really like to talk about because it’s not a great feeling and you don’t want to talk about how draggy you feel and how tired you are all the time.”
Living in Texas, Walker found few willing to test for Lyme as it is not common there. At first he was told he had mononucleosis; Walker learned he had Lyme disease the day before the Masters.
Erin Walker wrote that ticks can carry several strains of bacteria and that further testing revealed her husband had two forms of pneumonia, West Nile virus and a virus common with children called cytomegalovirus (CMV).
All of that helps explain missed cuts in five of Walker’s past nine events, including his defense of the PGA title; just a single top-10 in 2017 — a tie for ninth at last year’s Tournament of Champions, a limited-field tournament; and going from 20th in the world at the end of 2016 to 70th now.
“Jimmy had no energy to practice, so his golf suffered,” Erin Walker wrote. “He didn’t have energy to play with the kids [the Walkers have two boys] or help in normal activities around the house. Getting up to go to the golf course for his tournament rounds was the only energy he could muster and most days he felt like sitting down on the tee boxes in-between holes.”
Erin Walker, who disclosed little about her own situation, said the current treatment plan for Jimmy didn’t get put into place until September when he met with doctors in conjunction with the Northern Trust FedEx Cup playoff tournament in New York. He played just once afterward.
The treatment involves two weeks of antibiotics followed by two weeks off and will “continue for the foreseeable future,” she wrote, noting that he feels about “90 percent.”
“He has the energy to finally work out again and get back to a normal practice routine, which has not been possible for about a year.”
That is good news for Jimmy Walker, whose wife will now endure a similar yet perhaps better knowledge-based road to her recovery.