Woodland aims to hold off big names in pursuit of first major championship
June 15, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Gary Woodland holds a one-shot lead over Justin Rose entering the final round of the U.S. Open (Harry How/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – When Gary Woodland was playing high school basketball, he took a charge that sent him to the hospital. He stood his ground as a taller player tried to dunk on him. The impact collapsed Woodland’s trachea.
That was on a Tuesday. Woodland scored 20 points that Friday.
His ability to bounce back could be imperative as he chases his first major championship Sunday at Pebble Beach. The final round of a U.S. Open will test even the grittiest player’s resolve.
This week’s scores have been lower than traditionalists are accustomed to, but the course has been getting tougher as the week has progressed. Add in the pressure of pursuing a maiden major title, and it’s clear that Sunday will be a trying day.
Woodland will have to hold off a roster of players that is as strong as the 1927 Yankees, as well. Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy are all within reach with 18 holes remaining.
Woodland has been stellar over 54 holes – his two bogeys this week are the fewest in the field – but he’ll need one more good round to win his national championship.
He will start Sunday with a one-shot lead over Rose. This is Woodland’s first 54-hole lead in a major.
“My game is in a great spot,” Woodland said. “I'm at a beautiful golf course. I came here to win, and that's what we're going out to do tomorrow.”
Woodland is in the top 15 in both Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Approach-the-Green, hitting 74% of the fairways and 69% of the greens. The putter has been the most impressive important club in the bag, though. He is third in that statistic.
“Gary, when he's on, makes golf look easy,” said Matt Kuchar, who won a World Cup with Woodland and sits six shots back.
Four of the five players trailing Woodland on the leaderboard have won majors. That list includes Rose, the reigning FedExCup champion.
Woodland has some space over the rest of the field – Rose is the only player within three shots of him – but his pursuers all have impressive resumes and have proven themselves in the game’s biggest events.
“I know if I play my game and play like the way I've been playing, the guys from behind me are going to have to do something really, really special,” Woodland said. “So I'm going to go out, stay within myself, stick to my game plan and try to extend that lead more than anything.”
Brooks Koepka, the most intimidating man in majors since Tiger Woods, is in third place, just four behind. He’s tied with Chez Reavie and Louis Oosthuizen.
Koepka's success in these championships diminishes the size of his deficit. Confidence may be the most important attribute in golf, and Koepka is brimming with it. That’s what happens when you’ve won the past two U.S. Opens and PGA Championships.“I don't need to go out and chase,” Koepka said. “I don't need to do much.”
Oosthuizen won his Open Championship at the Home of Golf. If he were to win a U.S. Open, it would be fitting, then, to do it at this championship’s most historic venue.
And then there’s Rory McIlroy, who, like Koepka, owns four majors and has every reason to be confident. The final round falls one week after he shot a final-round 61 to win the RBC Canadian Open.
Woodland has never been better than third entering the final round of a major. That was at last year’s PGA Championship, when he shot a final-round 69 that was overshadowed by the duel between Koepka and Tiger Woods.
Woodland was paired with Woods on that final day. He struggled with the chaos that surrounded Woods’ pursuit of his first major in a decade, but gained valuable experience.
“I don't know if I enjoyed it to start the round, I think there was a lot of moving pieces going on, and I think I kind of got caught up in it a little bit,” Woodland said. “Once I settled in, … I was back to being myself. And that's what I've learned from that situation, is I can't control everybody else. I can control my attitude, and I can control my game. And that's what I'm out here to do.”
Woodland finished sixth, his best finish in 30 majors. He may face unprecedented pressure Sunday, but nothing will match the chaos that surrounds a final-round pairing with Woods when he is in contention.
Woodland's game has continued to progress under Pete Cowen, though. The former college basketball player now has a more complete game. He isn’t just relying on athleticism.
“I feel very comfortable on this golf course,” he said. “(Swing coach) Pete Cowen has got me comfortable working the ball both ways if I need to. And that just frees me up a little bit. I have a short game now I can rely on.”
Rose, a former U.S. Open champion, can be an intimidating opponent, but he’s also a friendly face.
They met in 2008, when Woodland joined Lake Nona just before heading to the final stage of Q-School. Rose introduced himself and gave advice about the challenge ahead. Woodland went on to get his card.
Woodland is ninth in the FedExCup this season, the highest-ranked player without a win. He has seven top-10s, including two runners-up, in 17 starts. The most recent of his three PGA TOUR wins came at last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Pebble Beach’s inviting holes allow Woodland’s closest pursuers to apply pressure early. They are among the easiest on the course. Pebble Beach is firming up, though. After a week full of red numbers, the course is starting to offer a more traditional U.S. Open test. That means players will have to be selective about when to be aggressive.
“The golf course is firming up. It's not as receptive as it was early in the week,” Woodland said. “Hopefully I can go out and control myself.”
If he does, a trophy will be waiting for him in one of golf’s most beautiful spots. He’ll have to earn it, though.