LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- I can tell you the exact date: Jan. 15, 2009. That’s when Gary Woodland hit his very first shot as a member of the PGA TOUR.
I remember it so vividly because I made a point to watch. It was at the Sony Open in Honolulu and I had heard of a player from Kansas who was unbelievably strong and already had a reputation for long drives.
Every PGA TOUR rookie class has a player fitting that description, but I wanted to see for myself, so I made it a point to be on the 10th tee for his tournament opening drive.
Woodland did not disappoint.
He pulled out driver on the 351-yard hole and hit it just to the right of green. A chip and a putt later, and Woodland had begun his PGA TOUR career with a birdie.
The memory of that drive stayed with me for a while. Woodland missed the cut that week, became injured and had a very unmemorable rookie season.
I came to think of him as a one-trick pony, and in retrospect I could not have been more wrong.
Woodland is still a long hitter. He crushes the ball. Woodland averages 304.4 yards per drive, third best on the PGA TOUR this season. His club head speed is 122.13 and the ball is traveling 180.47. His driver is a rocket launcher.
Woodland is known for his length and that is why I found it curious to read a tweet from instructor Pat Goss last Tuesday saying he had just spent a short game practice session with Woodland at Conway Farms, site of this week’s BMW Championship.
I just don’t usually think of Gary and his short game, and yet that has been the key to his bounce back season on the PGA TOUR.
The gallery would "ohh and ahh" at Woodland’s drives, but Gary was moaning following his putts. He ranked 178th in strokes gained-putting in 2012, 185th in bunker saves and 171st in scrambling. Woodland hit the longest drive on the PGA TOUR in 2012 at 450 yards, but ranked 134th in FedExCup points.
Something had to change, and it did. With Goss' help, Woodland has improved his short game. Every metric across the board has improved this year.
Woodland is 109th in strokes gained-putting and 145th in scrambling. He’s still crushing the ball off the tee. Woodland cranked a 411-yard drive this year, but now his short game can be counted on. Woodland ranks 21st on TOUR hitting 85.5 percent of his greens from 125 yards and less.
That short game helped him win the Reno-Tahoe Open and renewed his confidence. Woodland followed up with a T2 at The Barclays.
He ranks 14th in FedExCup points and should qualify for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in Atlanta next week.
Woodland’s short game is still, admittedly, a work in progress. But when you combine his length with improved chipping and putting, then the potential is there for not just success but domination.
A one-trick pony? The only trick will be keeping Woodland out of the winner’s circle next year.
Practice, practice: I think there is a public misconception that Tiger Woods rolls out of bed, tees it up and should shoot 62 every week. Woods is, of course, super talented but it's his extended practice sessions that have honed his success. Woods doesn’t just practice hard, he must work to be successful. Even though Woods' cranky back was functional at the Deutsche Bank Championship, he did not get the practice reps that week to win the tournament. I would expect a healthy and prepared Tiger Woods to be a factor at Conway Farms.
Helping hand: Luke Donald is a member at Conway Farms and lobbied for the club to host the BMW Championship. You would expect PGA TOUR players to pick his brain this week, but so have club officials. Donald was generous in advice and suggestions in the months leading up to competition. Run-off areas around greens are the direct result of his suggestions.
Variety: It will take a little while for players to become friendly with Conway Farms simply because there is so much variety. There are sections of the course that are heavily wooded, while other holes are exposed and open to the wind. It is a great help to have just 70 players this week because practice rounds would take forever with a full field. The short field helps alleviate congestion in preparation.
Patience: The course doesn’t feature a par 5 until the eighth hole. That means players might be grinding for that first birdie of the day and that sometimes leads to frustration. There are only a trio of par 5s on the par-71 layout and architect Tom Fazio teases players with some drivable par 4s like the 334-yard 15th hole. It is critical for a player to design a game plan during practice rounds this week and then have the discipline to stick with that plan.
Winner, winner: It’s hard to pick a champion this week because we have no previous track record at Conway Farms. It’s the first time for the club to host the BMW Championship, and with the exception of Donald, everyone is a rookie this week. When in doubt, go with the guy who makes the fewest mistakes. Matt Kuchar pounds the ball into the fairway and greens. That’s a great way to play when you are unfamiliar with a course. Matt has eight top-10 finishes this year including a pair of victories. That consistency will lead Kuchar to a win at the BMW Championship.
Fred Albers is a course reporter for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio. For more information on SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio, click here.