Walker's Game Trending Upward Just Like His Frame July 20, 2015 | Bluffton, S.C. By Stuart Hall

Andrew Walker has seen his game mature since making his USGA debut two years ago at the U.S. Amateur. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Andrew Walker slowly lifts his hands, cupped and shoulder width apart, until they are slightly above eye level. Coupled with his words, the image is unmistakable.

Walker is hopeful that the image becomes reality at this week's U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Colleton River Plantation Club’s Dye Course.

“It’s nice to be at tournaments competing, but the biggest glory for me is hoisting the trophy at the end of the week,” said Walker, 16, of Battle Creek, Mich.

Walker’s goal is no different than that of the other 155 juniors in this week’s field. If nothing else, though, Walker is a markedly different player than when he played in the U.S. Amateur two years ago at age 14.

That August week at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., Walker became the youngest African American to compete in the U.S. Amateur. He was a wispy player with a wiry frame at 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds.

“That experience of playing in the U.S. Amateur definitely helped me,” said Walker, who missed the match-play cut by nine strokes. “It let me see the caliber of golfers that are out there playing at almost the highest level you can possibly play at, and it gave me an idea of what I need to push toward to be the best I can possibly be.

“It’s going to take a lot to go out there and compete in this event. When I was at the Amateur, yeah I was trying to win it, but it was more just a big accomplishment being there, but definitely for this tournament, I am looking to win this one.”

Like a high percentage of players in this week’s field, Walker began playing golf at an early age (6) and because of his father (Filmore Walker III). He continued to play football and basketball until the individual aspect of golf held greater appeal for the rising senior at Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center.

“I’m a big math and science geek, and right now, going into my senior year, I am starting to focus more on engineering,” said Walker, who has already announced his intention to attend Michigan State University in 2016.

Though the U.S. Junior Amateur is just Walker’s second USGA championship appearance, his expectations have grown as noticeably as his size. He has sprouted to 6-foot-1, 140 pounds.

His physical maturation has not been without some growing pains.

Walker’s main growth spurt coincided with the Michigan winter of 2013-14. He practiced occasionally in heated hitting bays, but Walker essentially lost his swing through the growth period.

“It was kind of like a different swing to me, planes were all off and everything,” he said, adding that the engineer in him fights against becoming too technical in his swing, and that he prefers, instead, to play by feel.  

Walker muddled along until the summer when he was sidelined for nearly five weeks due to a back injury that was a result of the inefficiencies in his swing. In mid-September, Walker sought professional swing help for the first time, choosing noted Michigan-based instructor Dave Kendall.

Kendall has not overhauled Walker’s swing, but instead has made adjustments that are in tune with his student’s changing physique.

The tweaks are beginning to show positive results.

In three American Junior Golf Association starts this year, Walker has finished tied for 17th, third and first. The win came last month after an AJGA record-tying eight-hole playoff at the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior, in Ashland, Ky.

Four days later, Walker finished second in the U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier at Arbor Hills Golf Club, in Jackson, Mich. He got into this week’s field as a result of being the first alternate from that qualifier. 

Throughout, Walker says, putting has been a known quantity.

“I have been putting extremely well,” he said. “There have been some rounds where my ball-striking has been a little off, but I salvaged some good rounds with my putter. I’ve been averaging about 26 to 27 putts per round.”

Walker may be a different physical presence than he was in his last USGA championship two years ago, but one part of him has remained unchanged – the trademark straw hat, which Walker began wearing at age 7.

Gene Hughes, Walker’s uncle and godfather, wore a similar hat and influenced his nephew to follow suit.

“I continue to wear them because of him,” said Walker of Hughes, who has since passed away from cancer. “You start going to these tournaments around the country and making friends. After a while, they were recognizing me from my hat. And if I’m not wearing the hat it’s like, ‘Where is Andrew?’”

Walker would like nothing more than to show them at week’s end, hat on head, while raising the champion’s trophy.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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