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That was a turning point. Walker has won $5.4 million over the last four years. He's playing his best golf now with four top 10s in 2013, including a third at Pebble Beach and a fourth at Torrey Pines. He made 24 consecutive cuts before he missed in Memphis, and heading into last week's AT&T National, he was 71st in the World Ranking, up more than 100 spots from early 2012.
Along the way he got married. Erin Walker understands her husband's unusual hobby because she has one too—equestrian jumping. After their son, Mclain, was born in 2010, Jimmy remembered toying with a telescope as a kid and decided to get back to his stargazing roots. The idea quickly snowballed, starting with expensive equipment and then a prime location to do it. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out you can't see any stars living in the city," he says. "I studied some light-pollution maps and knew I'd have to get out of San Antonio."
He discovered Vanderpool, Texas, population 20, an hour's drive from Walker's home and on the other side of the Hill Country plateau, which effectively blocks San Antonio's light dome. He rented a cabin, and the process went like this: Drive to Vanderpool. Set up telescope and camera. Shoot frames. Go inside and warm up. Then repeat. Of course, it had to be a cloudless night, and the moon couldn't be out because its light ruins his imaging. "I shot only four or five pictures that first year," Walker says. "It wasn't great."
He learned on the fly, reading manuals and chatting online with noted astro-photographers. That's how he discovered New Mexico Skies, a facility at an altitude of 7,300 feet in Lincoln National Forest in Mayhill. It's a full-service operation that offers rental space for astronomers and maintains some 60 telescopes. The rent goes for $1,000 a month. "It's probably cheaper than the golf club I'm a member at," Walker says, laughing. "Plus there's no food minimum."
Walker and a friend loaded his gear into a car and drove the 580 miles to Mayhill. The folks at New Mexico Skies helped him set up and connect to a laptop, from which he typed commands that enabled him to photograph targets in the sky. "You can image almost every night because the weather is usually good," Walker says. "I've been pumping out pictures ever since."
Thanks to the computer hookup, he can practice his hobby even when he's on the road doing his day job. "I enjoy getting up in the morning and seeing what images I got during the night," Walker says. "It keeps my mind off missing my family, and it keeps my brain working. It would be easy to turn on SportsCenter and just zone out. This is just something I enjoy. I'm not really that nerdy."
Oh? Walker played with Tim Finchem at Pebble Beach last year in a First Tee outing and discussed his hobby with the PGA Tour commissioner. "Finchem thought it was incredible," Walker says. Former President George W. Bush joined the two for lunch, and Walker slid his phone to Finchem, who was floored by what he saw. "Then Finchem slides the phone over and says, 'Hey, Mr. President, look what Jimmy is doing,' " Walker says.
Walker breaks into his best Bush impersonation, squinting like Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live and affecting his down-home cadence: "That's good, that's really good." Then Bush pulled out his iPad, waved it around and asked Walker if he had that app "where you can hold it up and move it across the sky?" Walker laughed, then replied, "Yeah, Mr. President, I have that one."
Walker's most spectacular image may be one of several he has taken of Orion's Sword, which is located in the southwestern sky. In the middle is a bright red blob, like a smashed strawberry, with spreading space dust around it resembling spilled chocolate. "It has a 3-D effect, like you can almost reach through and grab it," Walker says. "I really exaggerated [the color]. The level of detail is incredible."
Walker frequently posts images on Twitter. He has a folder of more than 80 space images available for viewing at jwalk.smugmug.com/ astrophotos. He flips through the image catalog on his cellphone as easily as most people click through their list of contact numbers. "I like this one, NCG 2170," he says, holding it up to see. "I wish it had a name instead of a number, though, because it is so frickin' cool."