Justin Walters has been put through the wringer over the past few years but he’s back on his feet and ready for the next chapter, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
Perspective is what helps you through the darkest times. That’s not something Justin Walters has read, or been told by a sports psychologist, it’s something he’s learned through a lifetime of facing great obstacles and overcoming them.
He has saved his European Tour card in more last-gasp situations than he’d like to remember, or than his friends and family would like to go through again. He’s played his way through personal tragedy, although being the person he is, he will never argue he’s had any more than any normal person.
But make no mistake, Walters knows how to fight. He knows what he wants to fight for. And he knows how to never give up. That’s something you learn, and in his case, it’s a lesson that began as early as the age of four when a game of garden cricket cost him the sight in his right eye.
‘I was playing cricket in the garden with a friend. There was a bat in the bushes near a fir tree with those short, sharp needles. I was walking towards it and my mom called me. I turned around to look at her while walking and as I turned back I went straight into one of those pine needles, and it just went straight through my eye. I’ve had five operations on it, but I’m technically blind in that eye. It’s not the most ideal way to play golf, but at least the ball’s not moving. But I struggle with my perception on long putts and long-distance shots,’ he says.
And yet it’s never held him back. He’s played his way to two victories on the Sunshine Tour, and he’s played his way to a place on the European Tour.
And as 2020 stands before us like a freshly-mown fairway, Walters believes he may just be starting to find the recipe he needs to avoid some of the stress of those incredible moments when he has secured his European Tour card on the last hole of Qualifying School or in the final tournament of the season, and to let the talent and the tenacity meet in perfect balance this year.
It’s a place he’s come to while dealing with the passing of his father last year, a serious calf injury and the prospect of losing his European Tour card. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because Walters learns through overcoming.
‘For most of my golf career I’ve struggled with being too intense and not enjoying it, or being too involved and not relaxed. Last year, with losing my dad, the calf injury and then facing losing my card, I felt there wasn’t much else that could go wrong. That’s when I relaxed and gave it my all. Last year I knew I was playing well and it was just a matter of time, but the worry is always whether that will be in time.
‘But after losing my dad, I did get to a place where I felt that even if it didn’t come right, I’m healthy, I have my family, I’m going to be OK. I was able to get a bit of perspective in those moments. Perspective is what helps you in the darkest times.’
The darkest of those time was undoubtedly the death of his father.
Walters was playing at the Scandinavian Invitation in Sweden last August when he spoke to his father in hospital.
‘I had my calf injury in July and he was in hospital in July. At that stage he wasn’t in a life-threatening situation. I told him I could fly out to see him but the doctors said I shouldn’t expose my calf injury to a long flight, because it could lengthen my recovery time. And he said I should stay and get fit again.
‘Two weeks later he passed away. It’s really hard to deal with things like that, but deep down I know that’s what he wanted me to do. So I try to honour him in the best way I can and play really well.’
Walters considers it a blessing that he was able to have a final conversation with his father, even though neither of them knew at the time it was the last one they would have.
‘We spoke on the Wednesday evening of the Scandinavian Invitation and he said, “I’m fine.” I asked him if I should pull out and come and see him. He said, “Not on your life. You play.” Then I spoke to him on Friday after making the cut and he asked me how I played. I told him I played well. His last words to me were, “I’m so proud of you and I love you.” Then the next morning he went into a coma. I was talking to him for the last time, but I didn’t know it.’
Walters admitted he would have taken the rest of the year off were it not for the fact he needed to keep playing to secure his card. It’s a similar situation he faced when his mother passed away in 2013, and he responded in the same way by honouring her memory with the best golf he could play.
‘When you face really hard situations, if you can break it down into smaller bits and keep your perspective during those moments, it gives you a better chance. It helps me get out of my own way and play the golf I’m capable of. But I’m constantly working on that.
‘I’m starting to do better at it. I just need to relax a bit and keep perspective at all times to play my best golf. It’s hard when it’s your job and you have the expectations of your team around you. But it is still a game to be enjoyed and if you work hard, good things will come. I don’t think I always allow that to happen.’
Walters hopes he can bring that fighting spirit to his game from the moment the year starts and not expose himself to the kind of stress of those late-season charges he’s been so good at.
‘I’d like to have that fight from the get-go and not be in those situations again. My friends always ask if I can stop doing that to them! It’s not by design. This year I’m definitely not going to be in that situation again. I am going to treat every situation at the beginning of the year as my last event or opportunity. I’m going to do a better job of it. I’ve had that fight my whole life and I never give up. But it’s hard to sustain that energy if you’re always fighting. I need to find a way of balancing that.’
The way he’s found that energy up until this point is through exercise, his children, and his love for wildlife, particularly rhinos and their conservation.
Walters launched the Birdies4Rhinos charity and was soon joined by fellow pro Dean Burmester. It has grown to the point that now Justin Rose is also a member and they are raising millions through their efforts on Tour.
‘It’s humbling to see how it’s grown. We’re so privileged in that when we play good golf we are rewarded well, and we need to give back. Everybody does so in their own way and my way is wildlife. I love wildlife. And then you get moments on the putting green where somebody like Eddie Pepperell comes up to me and says, “This week I’m donating £30 per birdie.” Nobody asked him to do that. It’s exciting. I hope we can make a difference and we’re trying to do so.’
Much like the rhinos he’s working to save and the threat they’re facing, Walters is determined to not take anything for granted in 2020.
‘I remember watching golf on TV as a young boy and having this warm feeling inside me, knowing this is my calling. I always call on that in the tough times. I remind myself that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, as hard as it may be at times.
‘I’m turning 40 this year and I’d like to win a tournament before then and that should help with my other goal of playing at the Race to Dubai finale. Last year I was so close to having very little and I now have a full schedule. I need to take those opportunities and make the most of them.’
And he’ll do so with a new perspective that has him poised to take a bold new step forward this year.