matthew walker

The Fight of His Life

As he toils to make it as a tour pro, Matthew Walker plays in memory of the father who taught him the game
and with a kidney donated by his loving mother

By Ryan French

Bill Walker started almost every day by climbing onto a treadmill. He prioritized staying in shape for one reason: to be able to walk hilly golf courses and watch his son play golf.

On the morning of Jan. 22, 2018, Matthew Walker was a junior at the University of Iowa, and Bill was getting ready to follow his every move through his spring season. But when Camilla Walker returned home from work, she couldn’t open the door to the room where the treadmill was. Her husband’s body was blocking the door. Bill had collapsed and died while walking on the treadmill. He was just 61. Camilla called 911 and then Cindy, her best friend. After Bill’s body was removed, the two women began the painful 100-mile drive from Ottumwa to Iowa City. She would tell Matthew his father was gone.

Matthew was born on April 18, 1997, an only child. Bill was a car salesman before starting his own tax service business, and Camilla was a math teacher at a community college. Matthew had health issues as a child, and when he was 18 months old, his parents received the devastating news that doctors had found a tumor on one of his kidneys. 

A Wilms Tumor is a rare kidney cancer with fewer than 20,000 diagnosed cases in the U.S. annually. Matthew underwent eight surgeries, radiation and nine months of chemo. One of his kidneys was removed. On the day of the surgery, Camilla promised Matthew, “Honey, if you ever need a kidney, I’ll be first in line to give you one.” The treatments and surgeries were spread over months, and almost five years later, Matthew was declared cancer-free. Along the way, Bill vowed he would soak up every minute with his son.

The Walkers lived on a 200-acre farm not far from Cedar Creek Golf Course, the muni in Ottumwa. From the tips, the course stretches barely over 6,300 yards, and these days the green fee is a mere $22.45, $13.00 if you’re under 14. Punch cards are popular, and the snack bar features old leather chairs along red tabletops, a place where the $5 burgers are greasy, and the beer of choice is Busch Light. Bill started taking Matthew there when his son was 5. First to the range, then rides in the cart while hitting a few shots, before graduating to playing a couple of holes, then nine, then 18. 

By the age of 10, Matthew had improved dramatically. By age 12, he was dominating the Iowa Junior Tour before graduating to the AJGA. By the start of high school, Matthew was well-known in Iowa and around the country. Starting as a sophomore, he won the state high school championship three consecutive years. Bill rarely missed an event. Most top college programs recruited him, but he passed on schools such as Arizona and Illinois to stay close to home at the University of Iowa, jilting Iowa State. “I could never be a Cyclone,” he says with a laugh.

Matthew Walker, Iowa Hawkeye

The excellent play continued with the Hawkeyes, and Bill was there to see almost every shot. To save money, he drove to most tournaments, gassing up his 2015 Toyota Camry and heading to the next stop on the schedule. He put tens of thousands of miles on the odometer. There was the 17-hour trek to New Mexico and the 15-hour odyssey to Florida. Whenever he teed it up, Matthew would look down his first fairway, and there was Bill, under a tree or near the green. 

As the calendar turned to 2018, Matthew was coming off another great fall season. He had just returned home to the apartment he shared with teammates Benton Weinberg and Ryoto Furaya. Camilla and Cindy knocked on the door. Matthew immediately knew something was horribly wrong. Otherwise, why would his mother be making the 2 1/2-hour drive from Ottumwa without notice in the middle of winter? She uttered four chilling words: “Your dad died today.” Matthew took a minute to process what his mother had said.

How could that be? His father was in perfect health. Camilla and Matthew embraced, both sobbing. Still in tears, he called Iowa coach Tyler Stith. Bill Walker, the only teacher Matthew ever knew, who had been at almost every event he had ever played, his best friend, was gone. 

Matthew returned to Ottumwa to be with his mother and extended family for a week. The day after Bill’s death, the Hawkeyes were scheduled to head to Calusa Pines, an exclusive club in Naples, Fla., a place few of the players had played. Stith decided the trip needed to be canceled, and the players agreed. Everyone in the golf program attended Bill’s funeral. In the first event after his father’s death, Matthew saw a man standing down the first fairway; for a split second, Matthew assumed it was Bill. 

Camilla had made a few of Matthew’s events over the years, but she was often working. With Bill gone, she decided Matthew needed her support more than ever. So she walked into the dean’s office at Indian Hills Community College and announced she had to be at all of Matthew’s events. She wouldn’t miss a tournament in the final year and a half, and she was there when Matthew won co-medalist honors at the Hawkeye Invitational in the spring of 2019. 

After graduating with a degree in business management, Matthew turned pro in late 2019. Although he missed at Q school that year, he won the Iowa Open and had good finishes in multiple other events. But just as he was finding his footing in the pro game, his boyhood health scare caught up with him. His only kidney was failing. 

In May 2020, Walker’s nephrologist informed him that his kidney was functioning at just 40 percent. A transplant would be necessary if a solution couldn’t be found. On top of that, Walker was battling back pain. As many pros do, he tried to fight through it. Then in September of that year, he collapsed as he walked onto the Ottumwa Country Club range back home in Ottumwa. An MRI revealed a walnut-sized tumor on his T11 vertebrae. Two weeks later, Walker underwent a five-hour surgery at the University of Iowa hospital to have the tumor removed. There was hope the tumor had affected his kidney function and that it would improve after surgery. It didn’t. 

In September 2021, Walker shot a 54-hole score of 18-under to win the Nebraska Open by three shots. He set the scoring record for the 30-year-old event while playing with a kidney that was functioning at 19 percent, four percentage points shy of needing constant dialysis. 

Walker went to Q school the next month, somehow made it through first stage but with his body deteriorating he failed to get past second stage. After missing at Q-school he headed to Scottsdale as he has done every year as a pro and continued to grind. Yet his health continued to worsen and in late January of 2022 his Whoop band showed a resting heart rate of 90 beats per minute. On February 1st he felt so poorly he headed to the Emergency Room. He immediately flew home to Iowa and started dialysis. Three days a week for nearly four hours a day. In March Walker headed to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he needed a new kidney

Enter Camilla. From Matthew’s days as an infant, she had dedicated herself to living as healthy a life as possible to protect her kidneys for her only child. Now 63, she knew it was time to deliver on her promise. As she talks about Matthew’s plight, she pauses often to collect herself. “I had already lost my husband,” he says. “I refused to lose my son.” 

On March 28, during a five-hour surgery at Mayo Clinic, Matthew received a kidney from his mother. Outside of a few complications Camilla experienced with the anesthesia, everything went well, and the kidney is functioning. Matthew settled into a routine of taking eight medications daily, something he will have to do for the rest of his life. He will need another kidney replacement, as his doctors predict this one will last only 10 to 20 years. 

On May 9, Walker chipped and putted for the first time since his surgery; by mid-May, he was swinging his irons. On June 11, he played in his first event with his new kidney. He finished 11 under in the 36-hole event and lost in a playoff. He was just happy to be healthy. 

In September, Matthew missed for the third time at Q school, which is understandable when you consider he didn’t touch a club for months. Camilla still lives with her three horses at the family farm. She has taught herself how to drive a tractor; she loves it there, and the land is her connection to Bill. Through tears, she says, “I would sell it in a second if we needed to so Matthew can chase his dreams.” 

Matthew longs for the days spent with his father, but he still loves the game because of him. He will head to Scottsdale this winter, as he has done every year as a pro, to play mini-tour events and to hone his game. 

The fight continues, on and off the golf course.

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4 thoughts on “The Fight of His Life”

  1. I knew Bill Walker, and I know Matthew and Camilla. I remember when Bill passed and when Camilla took over as the Fairway Warrior. What I didn’t know was the whole story that was beautifully presented by Ryan. As a Rules official and a golf fan, I’m lucky to interact with players and their families. I had at least, a brief conversation with Bill at every tournament I officiated. He reveled in the birdies and suffered with every bogey. This summer I was attending the Greater Cedar Rapids Open at the 16th green just behind my our condo as a spectator. Matthew finished the hole with a birdie and walked over and said hello. A few minutes later I spoke with Camilla. Thanks to Ryan’s story, those reunions seem like a much bigger deal. Thanks for this one Ryan!

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