Gary Woodland wrestles with one of pro golfers' biggest headaches: the week-to-week variance in their game

Dave Shedloski
Golf Digest

HONOLULU — Gary Woodland’s two-week stay in Hawaii didn’t yield a victory, but he did submit one of the finest rounds of his career—one that might serve him well down the road.

Woodland was just another guy in search of his game last week at the Sony Open in Hawaii, forced to grind and battle just to make the cut. It was a surprise. And, then again, it wasn’t a surprise. The week before, at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Woodland played perhaps the best 72 holes of his life, shooting 22 under par with no score worse than five-under 68 on the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort.

The result was the same, though, as it was at Sony—he didn’t win.

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It’s not unreasonable to think there was a correlation, that the first week’s stellar-but-unfulfilling play led a lackluster effort the next. If ever there was a graphic illustration of how difficult it is to win on the PGA Tour, it’s Gary Woodland’s near-perfect performance at Kapalua that resulted in a near miss.

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Four days after missing a 10-foot birdie putt on the final green that sealed a frantic comeback win for Xander Schauffele, who zoomed to victory thanks to a final-round 61, Woodland was teeing it up at Waialae Country Club without the same focus or fire. It was understandable. Think of Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill to the very crest only to have it roll back to the bottom.

Woodland had to start rolling his rock again. First thought: Ugh.

“I won’t lie, it definitely was rough to get going mentally,” he conceded in Honolulu.

After six holes on Thursday, he already had tallied three bogeys, and then he started to feed his ball into every bunker as if it would earn him free airline miles. He felt like he was swinging a rake and not a golf club. He felt disconnected from the golfer who barely missed a shot for four days in Maui.

“I just didn’t have it,” he said of his opening round at Waialae after still adjusting to the shock of seeing yet another opportunity to win with the 54-hole lead vanish. “You know, I’ve been telling myself I’m playing well. That doesn’t make losing feel any better. You have a chance to win out here and you play well enough to win and you don’t, there isn’t much anyone can say to you to make you feel good about it. It’s very hard to swallow.

“You have to chalk it up that you are doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, and your game is moving in the right direction,” he added, “but it’s hard to hide the disappointment.”

<div class="caption"> Woodland played great at Kapalua, but a week later in Honolulu there wasn't as much to smile about. </div>
Woodland played great at Kapalua, but a week later in Honolulu there wasn't as much to smile about.

It’s weird, but winning isn’t always an accurate reflection of your game, though usually it is the result of a quality performance. Usually.

Woodland didn’t play golf on the day after Schauffele’s birdies and eagles extinguished his latest attempt at a win, but then he made the mistake of going 18 holes at Waialae on Tuesday, partly to get the blahs and black thoughts out of his system. Instead, he purged his good form. He was a zombie for nine holes during the Wednesday pro-am, too.

“That Tuesday round, I shouldn’t have done that,” said the Kansas native, 34, already twice a runner-up in the 2018-’19 tour season. “I was tired, and I didn’t hit it well at all. But I just felt like I should try to shake off the disappointment by playing, and that wasn’t the thing to do. I should have taken more time off, just let it go. And Wednesday, I was now trying to find a swing, and it wasn’t there.”

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And how does that happen, when your game had been so punctilious just a few days before? And how do you get it back?

On the 11th hole Thursday, Woodland made a slight adjustment in his takeaway, fed up with getting the club stuck behind and underneath him. He birdied two of his last seven holes to salvage a one-over 71. That was huge. The following day, needing to claw back three strokes to make the cut, he found four, shooting a 66.

Which made what happened next a head scratcher of sorts. Come Saturday, Woodland cratered with six bogeys and no birdies in a third-round 76 that he absorbed with a true athlete’s philosophical shrug.

“I ran out of juice,” he admitted after being sent packing, one of 10 players to miss the secondary cut.

<div class="caption"> Woodland felt too much practice at Sony hurt him, but when he grinded-out an opening 71, he took solace. </div> <cite class="credit">Stan Badz/PGA Tour</cite>
Woodland felt too much practice at Sony hurt him, but when he grinded-out an opening 71, he took solace.
Stan Badz/PGA Tour

It sounds counterintuitive, but winning takes a lot out of a player. There is more stress. It requires more mental exertion. That’s one of the things that made the many conquests of Tiger Woods so impressive, that he could rise up to answer the bell week after week.

But to play winning golf and lose is a sucker punch, a real strength zapper. You feel jolted and jilted.

And yet, Woodland might take that opening 71 and use it to spur greater deeds. He might just take from it a bigger bounce that from that red wave he rode in Maui.

“I was telling Butchie [caddie Brennan Little] when I walked off that last green that that was one of the most satisfying rounds I’ve ever had,” Woodland said. “I was able to make an adjustment and figure it out on the 11th hole, and I found a way to get a few strokes back and make something out of it when I might have shot 77-78. After what I did last week you wouldn’t think I’d be happy with shooting one-over 71, but I was as happy as I’ve been as if I shot something really low.”

The effects of that effort weren’t readily apparent at the Sony Open. Someday, however, they will be.

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