'I was as good as I've ever been'
Gary Woodland progresses from a promising physical prospect to a U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach
June 16, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The 14th green at Pebble Beach is hard enough to hit with a wedge, let alone a 3-wood. Out-of-bounds stakes aren’t far from the putting surface, either. Gary Woodland wasn’t sure he should take the risk while holding the lead on the final holes of the U.S. Open.
Woodland, the former college basketball player turned professional golfer, has physical gifts that few players possess, though. His caddie, Brennan Little, urged him to use them at this crucial moment.
The uphill hole annually ranks as one of the hardest par-5s on the PGA TOUR. It’s the rare three-shotter where par is acceptable. Most players never have to consider reaching it in two. Woodland’s 3-wood carried the gaping bunker in front of the green and settled in the rough, just left of the flag. The birdie gave him a two-shot margin and the confidence to close out his first major championship.
“It would have been pretty easy to lay up there. … (My caddie) is the one that told me play aggressive,” Woodland said. “Him telling me to do that gave me confidence, and it ended up in a perfect spot. That birdie there kind of separated me a little bit from Brooks and gave me a little cushion.”
That shot was impressive, but it was a shorter stroke three holes later that illustrated Woodland’s progress from promising prospect to major champion. After his tee shot drifted to the wrong side of the hourglass green on Pebble Beach’s 17th hole, he nearly holed his chip shot from off the putting surface. That par save allowed him to play the picturesque finishing hole comfortably. But he added one more magnificent stroke to his triumph with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the championship.
A final-round 69 gave Woodland a winning score of 13-under 271. He held off the TOUR’s most intimidating man in majors, Brooks Koepka, who pulled within one shot on the back nine, but could never overtake Woodland. Koepka fell three shots short of winning his third consecutive U.S. Open. He’s finished in the top 2 in five of the past six majors.
Woodland didn’t dream of sinking big putts on the 18th green when he was growing up in Topeka, Kansas, though. He wanted to hit game-winning jumpers.
However, he knew his basketball career was on borrowed time after the first game of his college career. He was a freshman guard for Washburn University when the Ichabods visited Lawrence Fieldhouse to face the Kansas Jayhawks. His assignment was to guard future NBA player Kirk Hinrich in the season-opening exhibition.
“I was guarding Kirk Hinrich and like, OK, I need to find something else because this ain’t gonna work,” Woodland said.
He transferred to Kansas the following year to play college golf. Woodland always thought he’d be a professional athlete. Golf was going to be his vocation now.
His athleticism helped him get to the PGA TOUR in 2009, less than two years after he turned pro. Woodland’s physical prowess has received plenty of press ever since he arrived on TOUR. The college basketball player epitomized the bigger, stronger athletes who were migrating to the course.
The expectations were raised even higher when he won just two years later. His ascension slowed because of an unpolished, one-dimensional game. His win at last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open was just his third in nearly a decade on TOUR, and first in five years.
“From a golf standpoint, I was probably a little behind, and that gets frustrating at some point, because my whole life I've been able to compete and win at everything I've done, and I haven't been able to do that as much as I'd like to in golf,” said Woodland, 35. “It's taken a while, but I think we're trending in the right direction.”
When he arrived at Pebble Beach, he was the highest-ranked player in the FedExCup without a victory. His first major title moved him to fifth in the standings. This is the first time in his career that he’s won in back-to-back seasons.
He credited the work with Pete Cowen, who became his short-game instructor 18 months ago and then started coaching all facets of his game after Butch Harmon retired from instructing on TOUR earlier this year.
Woodland was stellar around the greens at Pebble Beach, which is not an easy task on the steeply-pitched, poa annua putting surfaces. He didn’t three-putt all week. He made just four bogeys over 72 holes, tying a U.S. Open record.
He was second in Strokes Gained: Putting this week, as well. His +8.3 strokes gained marked the second-best putting performance of his career.
“He’s experimented, and he’s put the time and effort in to get better,” said his friend Matt Kuchar. “He’s really refined his skills. Not only does he have potential, but he gets a lot out of it now. He’s figured out how to play golf, how to keep it in play, how to work it both ways and his short game has vastly improved. It used to be a liability and now he’s gaining strokes around the greens.”
Woodland is 54th in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this season, an improvement of more than 100 spots in that statistic since last season. Earlier in the week, he and Cowen were working on hitting pitch shots off tight lies. That helped him execute that difficult pitch on the second-to-last hole.
“I competed all my life at every sport and every level,” Woodland said. “It was just learning how to play golf. It was learning to complete my game, to get that short game, to get that putting, to drive the golf ball straighter. And that was the big deal.”
The ability to perform under pressure is one of those intangibles that statistics can’t accurately measure, though. On Sunday, Woodland didn’t look like a man who’d never converted a 54-hole lead into victory. He’d taken at least of the share of the lead into the final round on seven occasions. He was winless in all seven.
He started Sunday with a one-stroke lead over Justin Rose. Major champions like Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen and Rory McIlroy were still within reach.
Woodland didn’t blink when Koepka made birdie on four of the first five holes Sunday. He made birdies on Nos. 2 and 3 to keep his lead. Playing with Tiger Woods in the final round of last year’s PGA Championship taught him about handling the final-round pressure. Woodland and Woods were both in contention, and Bellerive was overflowing with fans eager to see Woods win his first major in a decade.
The chaos distracted Woodland early in the round. It was too late by the time he gathered himself. Woods and Koepka were already locked in a showdown. That experience helped him at Pebble Beach, especially as Koepka put pressue on him.
“I think from a mental standpoint I was as good as I've ever been,” Woodland said Sunday. “I never let myself get ahead of myself. I never thought about what would happen if I won, what comes with it. I wanted to execute every shot. I wanted to stay in the moment. I wanted to stay within myself.”
Woodland, who didn’t have a top-10 in his first 27 majors, now has three in his last four. That shows a more complete game, one that’s able to withstand the toughest tests. Pebble Beach, which played just a hair over 7,000 yards, forced him to rely on more than just his driving distance. The small greens demand precise iron play. He finished second in greens in regulation this week, hitting 52 of 72.
“People probably growing up said the U.S. Open wouldn't suit me, because I'm a long hitter, I'm a bomber,” Woodland said. “Coming to Pebble Beach, on top of that, it's a shorter golf course. And I went out and proved, I think to everybody else, what I always believed, that I'm pretty good.”