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All feels for Gary Woodland in competitive return at Sony Open in Hawaii

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Cards 1-over 71 in return from brain surgery, but first-tee moment will linger forever



    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    HONOLULU – Gary Woodland shared a brief, strong hug on Thursday’s first tee with longtime caddie Brennan Little. On an otherwise quiet morning at the Sony Open in Hawaii, the action spoke louder than most.

    Woodland opened in 1-over 71 at Waialae Country Club, but this was no ordinary round. It was “probably the happiest I’ve been shooting over par,” he said afterward. That sentiment was beyond justified.

    This marked Woodland’s first competitive round since undergoing surgery Sept. 18 to remove a lesion that was situated on the area of his brain that controlled fear and anxiety. While battling symptoms last spring and summer, he’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking he was falling, sometimes even dying. He feared the worst, but golf was an escape, and his swing felt as good as it had in years, so he played through until he knew deep down that he couldn’t. He stepped away after the Wyndham Championship in August and had surgery a few weeks later before turning his sights to recovery, and to this day.

    Woodland rallied from a 3-over 38 on his first nine Thursday with two birdies coming in, but the minutiae of the round will fade with time. That memory from the first tee, though, will linger in his heart forever.


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    “Hearing Topeka, Kansas, hearing my name called, there was a time when I didn’t know if that was going to be called again,” Woodland said Thursday. “It got me a little more (emotional) than I thought it was going to.”

    Woodland intends to progress to a full schedule, and this was his first test. He knew he’d feel the jitters, and he did, but his body held up well. He felt some rust around the greens – “hit some poor chip shots” – but that’s to be expected after a five-month competitive hiatus.

    In a larger sense, Woodland sees this return on par with any victory, after he underwent a craniotomy where the surgeon cut a baseball-sized hole in his skull, operated through that hole, then replaced the hole with plates and screws. “I’ve got a robotic head, I guess,” he said earlier in the week.

    After surgery, though, that all-encompassing fear is replaced with gratitude – for the love and support he has received through recovery, and for the chance to continue playing this game for a living.

    As a four-time TOUR winner – including the 2019 U.S. Open – Woodland still wants to compete at the highest level and win again. He believes he can do it, and this week marks the start of his comeback. It’s time to work.

    “At the end of the day, the goal this week was to see how I was mentally, and I was really, really good,” Woodland said. “Got off to a rough start; I was excited and was doing a lot of breathing trying to slow everything down because I was moving fast. I settled in, especially the last nine holes, and played really, really well. A lot to build on.

    “I’m excited. The energy stayed up. Focus stayed up. A lot to be proud of.”

    To say the least.

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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