- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

MARANA, Ariz. (AP) - Jimmy Walker has been at the front of the pack all season on the PGA Tour. He got a jump on the field in the Match Play Championship, too.

The Texan was the first player to reach the second round Wednesday at Dove Mountain, finishing off South Africa’s Branden Grace 5 and 4 before the last dozen matches even started.

“You want to get the first one out of the way and move on to the next round,” Walker said. “You just want to keep doing that. It’s nice to get a win early. … I’ve been playing a lot of golf and it will be nice to kind of relax a little bit this afternoon.”

Walker won at Pebble Beach two weeks ago for his third victory in nine starts this season. He also won the season-opening event at CordeValle in October and at Waialae in January. Before this season, he was winless in 187 PGA Tour starts.

“It’s just validation for me, a lot of years being out here and working hard,” Walker said. “And to see it all kind of pay off, that’s what I’ve been waiting for.”

Walker will face Rickie Fowler in the second round. Fowler beat Ian Poulter 2 and 1, playing directly ahead of Walker in the first match of the day.

Rickie and I have a lot in common,” Walker said. “He’s a good dude.”

Walker and Fowler work with instructor Butch Harmon.

Jimmy Walker is hands down the best player in the world right now,” Fowler said. “It’s going to be a tough match. I know he’s a great ball-striker, he’s been making a lot of putts and has a lot of confidence right now.”

Walker is playing his first match-play event since the 2000 U.S. Amateur Public Links - the summer between his junior and senior seasons at Baylor.

“I made it to the quarters,” Walker said. “So, did pretty well. And was at U.S. Am, but missed match play by a shot or something. But it’s been a while.”

Walker won Nos. 3-5, the last two with birdies, to take a 3-up lead and went 4 up with a par on the par-5 eighth. He lost the par-5 11th, took the par-5 13th with a conceded birdie, and finished off Grace with a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-4 14th.

“I feel like I’m hitting well,” Walker said. “I feel like I’m playing well. So, yeah, I’m feeling confident and excited about the rest of the week.”

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MATCH-PLAY MAESTRO: Defending champion Matt Kuchar beat Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger 3 and 2 to improve to 16-3 in the event.

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