‘Up and Down’ the Iowa Golf Scene – Bouncing Back

Matthew Walker, with his mother, Camilla, off of South Beach in Miami. Camilla Walker has been with Matthew through every step of his health journey, including the donation of one her her a life-sustaining kidneys during a transplant in the spring of 2022.

The Calling Card for Ottumwa’s Matthew Walker in Quest to Reach Golf’s Highest Level

Golf immortal Bobby Jones famously coined the phrase “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.”

Professional golfer Matthew Walker has already experienced more of life’s bad breaks than most do in a lifetime, yet he continues to play the ball where it lies as he pushes forward to fulfill a lifelong dream – to reach the PGA Tour.

Matthew Walker captured the 2019 Iowa Open in a playoff, shortly after graduating from the University of Iowa and turning professional.

The 26-year-old Ottumwa native and University of Iowa graduate heads to Latin America this spring to compete on the PGA Tour Americas, a merger between two former PGA developmental tours based in Latin America and Canada. The schedule features 16 events and $225,000 purses where the Top 10 finishers on the money list earn exemptions on the 2025 Korn Ferry Tour.

Now in his fifth season as a professional, Walker has made steady progress on his climb toward the game’s pinnacle, grinding through mini-tours, state-opens, pro-amateur events and Korn Ferry Tour qualifying. Last fall, he fired and 14-under par 270 to capture the Korn Ferry first stage qualifying event contested at the University of New Mexico’s championship course. He finished a few shots shy of advancing past the second stage and to the Korn Ferry finals, but his first stage victory earned him playing status on this season’s PGA Tour Americas.

“Everybody out here who plays the game for a living can bomb the driver and can hit great iron shots,” Walker said recently during a telephone interview with Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene. “What makes the difference is the ability to get the ball in the hole, take advantage of the Par 5’s, minimize mistakes and being strong mentally.”

As he continues to sharpen his game, the 2019 Iowa Open champion is focusing on course management and the mental aspect as the margins among players become smaller and smaller at higher levels.

“You have to manage your bad rounds to come out around par and not shoot yourself out of contention,” he remarked. “You cannot give away shots and stay competitive. And you have to be comfortable at staying aggressive when getting it way under par because you have to be way under for high finishes.”

Matthew Walker is all smiles after capturing the Wigwam Championship on the Golden State Tour in January of 2020, just prior to the pandemic putting a hold on his PGA Tour aspirations.

Life tossed its initial curveball at Walker when he was a toddler. At 18 months, he was diagnosed with a Wilms Tumor on his left kidney, a childhood cancer that strikes one in 10,000 youngsters. Eight surgeries, nine months of chemotherapy and six radiation treatments followed, including the removal of his kidney. He gradually gained strength and function. At age five, his father, Bill, introduced Matthew to golf and he was soon hooked. With his father as the teacher and mentor, Walker improved rapidly playing the Cedar Creek Golf Course in Ottumwa. By the age of ten, Walker started competing in Iowa PGA Section and Iowa Golf Association junior events and eventually earned Player of the Year honors.

As a prep, Walker starred at the tradition-rich Ottumwa High School, where the Bulldogs have captured 11 state golf tournament titles and seven runner-up finishes. He was a four-time first-team all-state selection and captured a pair of Class 4A state individual championships, the first as a sophomore in the 2012-13 season and the second as a senior in the 2014-2015 campaign. He shot identical 36-hole totals of 141 to claim the titles, and both events were played at the Tournament Club of Iowa. Walker nearly made it three championships as he lost a playoff to Ankeny Centennial’s Griffin Matthias during his junior season. In addition to the state title, Walker captured medalist honors at all 12 meets as a senior.

Due to his decorated high school and junior golf career, Walker had several options to play college golf, including the University of Arizona and the University of Illinois, but he followed his heart to the University of Iowa. As a Hawkeye, Walker starred for Coach Tyler Stith’s program for four years, including being named to the Ping All-Midwest Regional team, a tie for sixth at the Big Ten championships, co-medalist at the Hawkeye Invitational and posting a career stroke average of 73.09 over 122 rounds.

It was during Walker’s junior season at Iowa when life hurled another major setback. His father, Bill, collapsed while working out on the treadmill at home and passed away in January of 2018 at the age of 61. Bill Walker had been Matthew’s mentor, coach, best friend and had walked the fairways at virtually all of his golf tournaments to lend his support.

“Dad’s passing taught me about perspective and priorities and that golf is really just a game,” Walker said. “I miss him dearly and carry his legacy with me.”

Midway through his senior season at Iowa, Walker began experiencing some back pain. As it gradually worsened, he suspected it might be related to his childhood kidney issues as it forced him to miss a handful of events. His lone kidney typically functioned at 70 percent, and then it was rated at 40 percent. Keeping a watchful eye on his health, Walker graduated from Iowa with a degree in business administration, turned professional and began his pursuit of playing the PGA Tour.

He roared out of the blocks quickly, capturing the 2019 Iowa Open at Blue Top Ridge by firing a 13-under-par 203 and defeating Gavin Hall of Palm Beach Gardens, FL in a playoff. A few months later, Walker broke through on the Golden State Tour by winning the Wigwam Championship in a 3-way playoff, birdieing four of the final five holes and pocketing the $11,000 winner’s check.

Bill and Camillia Walker have been Mathew’s biggest supporters. Bill Walker passed away unexpectedly in 2018.

Just as his pro career was taking flight, life’s bad breaks resurfaced. First, the pandemic year of 2020 limited playing opportunities while regular checkups indicated Walker’s lone kidney was continuing to lose effectiveness. Then in September of that year, Walker collapsed during a practice session while on the range back home at the Ottumwa Country Club. An MRI revealed the source of his lingering back pain; he had a walnut-sized benign tumor on his T11 vertebrae. The tumor was removed during a successful procedure at the University of Iowa Hospitals, followed by a several month recovery process.

And recover he did during the 2021 year, highlighted by capturing the Nebraska Open in record fashion, firing a 54-hole total of 195, including a sizzling ten-under par 61 in the opening round. Walker joined fellow Iowan Ken Schall as the only players to capture both the Iowa and Nebraska Opens. Even more remarkable was the fact that Walker claimed the title with his lone kidney functioning at 19 percent capacity, barely above the cut line for needing dialysis.

In January of 2022, back in Arizona and again gaining momentum in his professional golf career, Walker once again faced a roadblock. His Whoop band indicated a resting heart rate at 90 beats per minute as the clock had run out on his lone kidney. He immediately began life-saving dialysis in Arizona, then shortly thereafter flew back to Iowa and began a three day per week dialysis regimen at Ottumwa Regional Hospital. His mother, Camilla Walker, a retired mathematics teacher at Indian Hills Community College, had long planned to become Matthew’s kidney donor, should he need it.

The time was now, and the five-hour transplant surgery took place at The Mayo Clinic in March of 2022. The procedure was successful, and by summer Matthew had resumed his playing career. In his first outing back from kidney transplant, the Albia, IA Pro-Am, Walker shot 11-under and resumed chasing his dream.

Through all the hardship and side effects, which include taking eight anti-rejection medications twice daily, Walker remains upbeat. He is ready to pursue playing opportunities on the PGA Tour Americas and beyond.

“I see many guys out here who are finished for the day after one or two bad shots,” he said. “I’ve learned that you have to be resilient, fight through adversity, and keep going. Professional golf can drag you to places you do not want to be, should you let it. I’m not going to let a bad round, or a bad break, whether on or off the course, keep me from pursuing my dreams.”

“Up and Down” the Iowa Golf Scene

A regular feature column written by IGA Foundation board member Mark Gambaiana, Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene is designed to take the reader beyond the headlines and scoreboards to share stories of those who help make Iowa golf so rich and rewarding. Profiles will spotlight those who advance the game through volunteerism, service, extraordinary achievement, competition, human interest and the many other dimensions of golf in Iowa.

Click the links below to read previous Up and Down features
– IGA Rules Official Sean Flanders
– R&A, USGA Champion Gene Elliott
– Nervig Reflects on Decades of Service to The Iowa Masters
– Arseneault Finds Fulfillment in Life’s Next Chapter After Competitive Golf
– Ivan Miller remembers the days of the Minnows
– Kinney adjusts to life on tour
– Standard Golf’s roots run deep
– Pettersen sets sights high
– McCoy, Norton Put Iowa Stamp on Florida Senior Golf
Moreland Reflects on his Extraordinary Club Pro, Playing Career
From Sibley to the LPGA Tour – Barb Thomas Whitehead Fulfills Her Dream
At 88 Years Young, Cleo Brown Remains a Fixture at the Principal Charity Classic, IGA Events
Love of the Game, Service to Others Propel Charlie Taylor to IGA’s 2023 George Turner Award

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