-- SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- When Jimmy Walker and Andy Sanders met for the first time at Baltusrol in 2000, there was little debate over which Texas collegian was the better bet to someday win a major championship. Sanders was a two-time All-American and individual conference champion at Houston, and Walker was something less than that at Baylor.
They had come to New Jersey for the U.S. Amateur and had stumbled into each other around the 10th tee on the Upper Course. Sanders remembered thinking that Walker could hit it a mile. Walker remembered thinking, "Wow, that's Andy Sanders. He's from Houston. He's really good."
Sanders was good enough to outplay Graeme McDowell of Alabama-Birmingham in Conference USA. He was good enough to dream of doing exactly what his friend, Walker, did Sunday on the Lower Course at Baltusrol -- finish a surreal 36-hole day with enough patience, power and precision to seize his first major title at age 37.
But four years after meeting Walker, right smack in the middle of a Nationwide Tour career that seemed destined to lead him to the big leagues, Sanders woke up one morning unable to see out of his right eye. He missed the cut in Fort Smith, Arkansas, saw an ophthalmologist, and 15 minutes later heard a diagnosis that buckled his knees.
Multiple sclerosis. A potentially debilitating disease of the central nervous system.
"It was something I wasn't ready to handle," Sanders said. "When you're a professional golfer, you feel pretty invincible. You feel like you can do anything you want, so I didn't want to deal with it."
He took prescribed steroids for his eye, and went right back to work. "I think I probably just shoved it, buried it," Sanders said. But he couldn't escape it for long. He had to take injections every week with needles the length of a 1-iron -- he passed out the one time he tried to inject himself -- and the medicine left him to deal with vertigo, fatigue and flu-like symptoms. "It really depressed me," Sanders said.
He was a great putter who couldn't find the cup anymore, and after two years of trying and failing to regain his form, he decided he was done as a professional golfer at age 25. He tried his hand at caddying, and was working for a mini-tour player named Jason Schultz when Walker suddenly asked him for help with his putting. Sanders gave him a tip or three at a 2007 Nationwide event and, wouldn't you know it, Walker ended up winning that week and ultimately hiring the caddie for his rookie season on the PGA Tour.
All these years later, there they were in the 18th fairway Sunday, absorbing the roar that told them Jason Day had just eagled the 72nd hole to cut his 3-shot deficit to 1. Walker figured his birdie at 17 might have been the clincher, but no 37-year-old who had never finished in the top five at a major was going to break through the easy way.
"It doesn't matter," Sanders told Walker about Day's eagle. "As long as we execute what we have, we don't have to worry." Walker decided that he didn't need to lay up on the par-5 18th, that 19 times out of 20 he would make at least par on this hole when going for the green in two.
"Send it," Sanders told him.
And send it Walker did. He missed wide right, but took advantage of a favorable lie and landed his third shot safely on the green. Two putts would win it all on another wet and wild day in Jersey, and before Walker delivered the last of his 135 strokes for the day, Sanders crouched behind his ball for a final read, grabbed the flagstick and held his breath. The short putt disappeared into the cup, and the two men jumped into each other's arms like a pitcher and catcher celebrating a perfect game.
Watching on TV, Sanders' wife, Megan, began to cry as their two children screamed with joy. "It was great for Andy to see victory through Jimmy's eyes," Megan said by phone. "Andy always believed Jimmy would be great. He always thought he'd win the Masters and other majors. Andy loves what he's doing, and he's so levelheaded in explaining how he's fine not being in the spotlight. The way Andy sees it, if he can't celebrate himself winning a major, there's nothing better than celebrating it with Jimmy."
In the gathering darkness, behind Baltusrol's 18th green, Sanders held the winning flag as he spoke of his own emotional journey from hopeful player to champion caddie. He said his doctor suspects his MS was triggered by head trauma he suffered in a 2003 car crash. Sanders was doing 65 on a Texas highway when a driver heading the opposite way suffered a seizure, crossed the median and struck his vehicle head on.
"I remember seeing [the car] way up there," he said, motioning in a zigzag way, "and I remember getting over. And I don't remember anything after that. Next thing, I woke up and I was on the chopper getting airlifted."
Sanders had outplayed Walker at Baltusrol in 2000, the same year he qualified for the U.S. Open and shot the same 36-hole score (155) at Pebble Beach that Jack Nicklaus shot in his final Open. So the caddie was asked if there was a point during this PGA Championship when he wondered if this could've been him in Walker's shoes, or if this should've been him in Walker's shoes.
"I put that to bed a long time ago," he said. "It wasn't in the cards for me, and I'm fine with that."
And why not? Sunday was a great day to be alive and healthy and working the round of his life. Sanders had no problems caddying for 36 holes; his new medicine causes no tangible side effects, and allows him to limit his IV treatments to one hour a month.
The disease, Sanders said, used to be "in the forefront of my mind and controlled everything I did." He was free to savor every muddy step of this magical journey back to where it all began with Walker.
Player and caddie talked about their 2000 meeting early last week. "Pretty crazy," Sanders said, "to end up winning a major at the first place we met." Pretty crazy to hole out that bunker shot at No. 10, and then follow it with that monster birdie putt at No. 11. Pretty crazy to execute that shot from under the tree at the 15th. Pretty crazy to drain that birdie at the 17th, and to make that career-changing par at the 18th.
Sanders admitted that being the winning PGA Championship caddie wasn't as rewarding as being the winning PGA Championship player. "There's no way it can be," he said. "It's not the same joy. But it's great in its own way."
The caddies for Day and Jordan Spieth embraced their colleague in the end, and so did Rickie Fowler. Sanders once had a more realistic shot at winning a major than his boss did, and by Sunday night he could not have cared less.
This wasn't just golfing history. This was one hell of a consolation prize.