“Most people think this is just some quirky thing I do,” Jimmy Walker says, ducking under the telescope’s large metal truss. He doesn’t say it, but it’s implied. This is not some rinky-dink backyard operation. He’s not holding his iPhone camera to the heavens, slapping an Instagram filter on it and calling it astrophotography. This is a state-of-the-art rig that took a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of wealth to construct.
The instrument itself towers overhead. It’s so tall that the motorized roof of his observatory (a custom-built, HOA-compliant structure in his backyard) needs to be fully opened before he can “unpark” the scope. The scope’s mount, bolted and cemented to the ground, is so big his kids couldn’t wrap their arms around it if they tried. There are wires and gadgets and busy blinking lights everywhere. There are dehumidifiers and filters and weather instruments and wireless senders and receivers. A second top-tier refractor telescope is attached to the big one, which itself is really just a large truss system designed to hold a 29-inch mirror in place while it gathers light from the depths of space and time.
“There are well over 30 hours of exposure of a single target put into this image,” Walker explains while tweaking his latest rendition of the Orion Nebula. In layman’s terms, Walker has pointed his camera at a glowing mass of space dust located very far away and has left the shutter open in order to gather its light. Sometimes he does this for a few nights in a row. He later compiles those long exposures into a single image and churns them into otherworldly creations using specialized software. The subjects—distant nebulas, star clusters and galaxies—are so far away that their light can take millions of years to reach us.
Yes. Light. Traveling at 186,000 miles per second. Took millions of years to reach Boerne, Texas.
Pause for effect.
In fact, some of the most distant objects that are observable through Jimmy’s Little Backyard ’Scope are billions of light years away. Billions. With a B (!).
If all that boggles the brain, then consider this: Walker’s subjects are not only unfathomably large and complex star systems, but, given the time their light takes to reach us, he’s really capturing them as they were way back in the distant past—long before we decided it would be fun to hit a ball with a stick. Indeed, long before balls, or sticks, or humans, ever existed.
It’s this sense of scale that hooked Walker after he got his first telescope as a 30th-birthday present from his wife, Erin. When asked if contemplating the vastness of space and time has made chasing a white ball around a course seem trivial, Walker puts it this way: “I try not to think about that too much because you can get lost in it. You need to keep yourself in the here and now, because this is all we know and it’s important. Life is important, taking care of people is important, taking care of your kids is important. Everything we do is a big deal despite how small we seem.”
It’s fair to say that in our infinitesimally tiny corner of the cosmos, Walker is a big deal. “Since becoming a major champion, I get recognized a lot,” he says. “You don’t realize how many people watch those tournaments, and how many people witnessed it. I’m more recognizable now in any setting, anywhere, which is new for me. But it hasn’t changed anything. My kids don’t care. They still want to play with me every day. Nothing has changed, and I don’t want it to.”
But Walker’s time is far from infinite. As a major champion, multiple-time PGA Tour winner, successful Ryder Cup team member, husband and father, he’s in high demand. Given its complexity, having sufficient time to learn about and then take 30-hour-long photos and process them doesn’t even seem possible. When would one find the time to practice? Or to host curious magazine editors at one’s home?
A cursory glance of his study reveals the answer: He’s a geek. He loves this kind of stuff. Fortunately for Walker, his ability to win golf tournaments has allowed him to indulge his every boyish impulse, so he’s taking full advantage—time constraints be damned. His impressive trophy room (made even more so by the Ryder Cup that was visiting for the week) has afforded him fast cars, remote-control airplanes, drones, robots and state-of-the-art computers, cameras and telescopes.
Note the “s” on the end of “telescope.” In addition to the behemoth in his backyard, Walker has similar remote observatories in California and New Mexico that are accessible on any clear night with just a few clicks of a mouse. As Walker describes them, these telescopes and the images they capture are a much-needed creative outlet that acts as a ballast to his golf tilt: “Astrophotography is an escape. It’s an artistic outlet. To me, it’s more art than science. Yes, there’s a lot of science involved, but once you get the data, it’s about making art out of the science.”