But one head-to-head battle Walker could not win was the one she faced against cancer. The Florida native was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2003. She underwent treatments and the cancer went into remission, only to return in her bones in 2011. Walker passed away with her family beside her on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at home in Valrico, Fla. She was 56. She left behind her son, Tyler, 16, and husband of 25 years, Ron Bakich.
“She battled long and hard and she touched a lot of people along the way,” said LPGA Tour veteran Barb Mucha, who often roomed with Walker during tournament weeks on The Legends Tour. “Colleen’s determination and good attitude was there whether she was playing for a dollar or a tournament win,” added Mucha. “You always knew she was not going down easy.”
LPGA veteran and Legends Tour member Laurie Rinker got to know Walker while playing Florida junior golf even though Walker was six years older. Walker knew Rinker’s older brothers, so Rinker would watch Walker as each moved up the ranks among the Sunshine State’s top juniors. The lively banter between the two women really started when Walker played college golf at Florida State University only to be followed by Rinker, who played at the University of Florida.
“That was always a fun conversation with Colleen,” said Rinker, of the rivalry between the two state universities. “We had some little side bets about those football games.” Rinker remembers how Walker demonstrated the highest level of professionalism during the 1986 LPGA International Pro-Am in Elmsford, N.Y. Walker finished second in the event, but she contacted LPGA rules officials to call a rules violation on herself immediately after the final round. She was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard, forfeiting her prize check of $18,500.
“It showed a lot of integrity,” said Rinker. “That was a big check back in those days and it was before she started having a lot of success.”
When Walker won the 1997 du Maurier Classic, she captured that event a mere 10 months after giving birth to her son, Tyler. The story captured the hearts and imaginations of the Canadian hosts and Walker freely shared the joys and challenges of new motherhood with media at the event. When she won her first major championship at the Canadian tournament, Walker’s face was radiant in her successful return to professional golf. She now had a family, a new victory and was on top of the world. Walker shared her win with Canadian golf fans and was a warm and gracious champion -- and the fans reciprocated with their newest victor.
“It was so nice when she won the du Maurier Classic,” said Ian Hutchinson, veteran Canadian golf writer. “Colleen made a lot of friends that day.” That willingness to share with and care for others was also witnessed firsthand by former tour player Shannon Hanson, who scored her first hole-in-one while playing with Walker in an LPGA pro-am in Auburn, Ala. “I think I won a coupon for a free sandwich for the ace,” said Hanson. “She laughed and asked me what my favorite car was. A few days later, I received a red Hot Wheels Porsche in the mail from her with the nicest note.”
It was the small things that made Walker stand out. It was the fact that, as busy as she was, she took the time to make others feel special. “We had a blast that day,” added Hanson. “I am so sorry for this loss.”
As Walker’s son Tyler Walker Bakich grew, he became friends with Rinker’s sons and Jimmy Jones, son of LPGA veteran Dawn Coe-Jones. Teenagers Jones and Bakich play Florida junior golf together and have always shared the mutual bonds of their golfer moms. It was a source of great pride for Walker when Tyler won his age division last summer in the 2012 Florida State Golf Association Junior Match Play Championship.
“I saw how she interacted with Tyler when she was on the road playing a tournament,” said Mucha. “They talked by phone every morning before school and every night. She was firm with him, but in such a loving way,” Mucha added. “They were powerful conversations and you could hear the deep love that she had for him and he had for her.” There also was great pride when Walker, always smiling with those sparkling eyes, would say, “My boy shot a 67.” Or when you would run into Colleen, Tyler and Ron at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., and the veteran pro would beam proudly as others commented on how her son was growing into a tall young man.
Colleen Walker did not win her battle with cancer, but she won the admiration of many during her 56 years of life and her career in golf. She always came to play and hers was a gallant fight in a life well lived.
And just as she was always gracious in victory, Walker was just as gracious in defeat – both in golf and in life.