Gary Woodland’s victorious march about the seaside emerald grounds of iconic Pebble Beach in the 2019 U.S. Open first took root in the Gateway to the West.
At Bellerive Country Club, to be exact, on the outskirts of St. Louis.
In the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship.
Alongside a man in a red shirt.
Until then, Woodland had been a bust in majors, a three-time PGA Tour winner with not one top-10 in 27 starts in the four marquee events of the year. He had eight missed cuts to go with just two ties for 12th as his only finishes in the top 20.
But at compact and packed Bellerive, Woodland clicked and opened in 64-66 to grab his first 36-hole lead in a major. After a middling 71 in the third round, he stood three shots out of the lead and was standing next to Tiger Woods in the penultimate group Sunday.
Then the meat-and-potatoes bruiser from Kansas, who rarely had been shaken on any field of play, became unsettled in the presence of Woods and the ear-splitting crowds. He quickly got lost in the Tiger vortex and remained adrift for far too long. By the time he gathered himself, it was too late. But while he lost his grip on the Wanamaker Trophy, he grabbed hold of his golf doctorate.
Gary Woodland and Tiger Woods shake hands after finishing on the 18th green during the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, Missouri. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
“I got out of my element that day,” said Woodland, who finished in a tie for sixth with his final-round 69. “It was so loud. And Tiger shot 64 and was making a charge, so it got even louder. Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about being in contention. I was thinking about playing with someone you’ve looked up to your entire life on a Sunday in a major championship and I got out of myself.
“Lesson No. 1? Don’t ever do that again. It was the first time in my career that I lost focus on what I was doing.
“Lesson No. 2? That day I learned in major championships, where the stage is the biggest, the noise the loudest, the pressure the most intense, that you could still control what you can control. I learned a whole hell of a lot. That round made me 10 more years a veteran. I wouldn’t have been able to hold on at Pebble if I hadn’t been in that situation with Tiger on Sunday in St. Louis.”
That final round in St. Louis proved to be the last piece of the puzzle Woodland was putting together. Craving to take his game to the next level, he had hooked up with short-game gurus Pete Cowen in December of 2017 (chipping) and Phil Kenyon in July of 2018 (putting) and gradually began leaving his tad one-dimensional ways behind him. The slugger with great ballstriking talents became a more well-rounded player with each passing month, especially when tying for eighth in the 2019 PGA Championship, and his confidence was brimming when he got to Pebble Beach.
And he indeed held on for his maiden major triumph. With rounds of 68-65-69-69, he was the one who made others tremble and finished three clear of major master Brooks Koepka, who was stalking a historical U.S. Open three-peat.
Woodland did so on Father’s Day, in front of his dad, Dan, his hero who nearly died of a heart attack 10 years prior. And with his wife, Gabby, watching at home with their son and expecting identical twins.
“You couldn’t write a better script,” Woodland said.
The script flipped in 2020
Woodland, 36, was supposed to be in Mamaroneck, New York, in June defending his title at historic Winged Foot Golf Club. Instead, he was in South Carolina at Harbour Town Golf Links for the RBC Heritage.
COVID-19 got in the way, but it allowed Woodland’s U.S. Open reign to continue three more months until the national open begins Thursday on the West Course at Winged Foot. Gave him more time to reflect on his biggest victory to date, especially during those times he eyed the U.S. trophy from his Kansas home. To think about the emotional day above Carmel Bay when he was able to put some of the darkest moments of his life, which included his wife suffering two miscarriages, a bit more behind him.
Gary Woodland lines up a putt on the 6th hole during the second round of the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. Photo by Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports
“It feels great to be the defending champ, and it was nice to have that trophy a little longer than normal,” Woodland said. “Walking through New York City with that trophy for media day afterwards was pretty cool, taking it back home, taking it to a couple football games was pretty special. Any time you get to hold a piece of trophy that your name is etched on forever is pretty cool, and to share it more with my friends and family and my team just proves the hard work pays off, and that was very special for me.”
Woodland earned the trophy at Pebble Beach with a foursome of power, accuracy, touch and poise that held off Koepka, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose. And it all started to come together as soon as he got there the Saturday before the tournament began.
“When he got to Pebble, he had like a calmness to him all week unlike anything I had seen with him,” said his caddie, Brennan “Butchy” Little. “He was just in a different zone that week. What happened at Bellerive was huge to him.
“He’s always been a good ballstriker and has always been long. But when he started working with Pete and Phil, that’s when he put it all together. Winning at Pebble hasn’t changed him. He’s still the same guy. Except now he knows he can put it all together on the biggest stages.”
Woodland was on his game when the curtain fell Thursday and remained on the first page of the leaderboard throughout. Standing at 11 under through 54 holes, he led by one going into the final round. That presented another hurdle for Woodland – he was 0-for-7 on Tour when holding at least a share of a 54-hole lead. This time, however, there would be no final-round disappointment.
Woodland instead kept delivering star turns that proved his seasoning as a player. A perfect drive on the difficult second hole and then a precise 7-iron set up birdie that calmed his nerves. He led by one when he arrived at a testy decision on the wicked par-5 14th, where he faced 265 uphill yards to the flag after a solid drive. Out of bounds was to the right, trees to the left, a monster bunker in front of a dangerous, two-tiered green. A birdie 4 was in play, yes, but so, too, was 6 or 7.
Lay up or go for it? Woodland went for it.
“I’m a very aggressive player and I like to play aggressively, and Butchy is very conservative,” Woodland said. “And it was the first time in my life I probably thought about being conservative, and I think it was the first time in our relationship of more than four years where Butchy was definitely the more aggressive. He didn’t hesitate, and that gave me confidence.
“He trusted me. Best swing I made probably since I’ve been on Tour.”
Little won’t argue.
“Going for it, worst case you’re over the back, or you hit it left you’re in the grandstand, or you go right it’s a tricky pitch. But you’re up near the green. At worst he makes 5,” Little said. “If you lay up, then you have one of the toughest third shots to a par 5 anyone has ever seen. You can easily hit a good shot and be in trouble. Then you have to get up and down for 5.
“Going for it took 6 out of the equation. And laying it up is not his style. Then he hit the best shot of the tournament.”
Woodland uncorked a 3-wood that just flew the front bunker and wound up 16 feet from the hole on the fringe. From there he two-putted for birdie.
His work wasn’t done. He held a 2-shot lead on the par-3 17th, where he left himself 90 feet from the cup on the hourglass green after a poor tee shot. Instead of putting, he cleanly chipped the ball that rested on the green. With perfection, too, the ball stopping two feet from the hole.
“I trusted myself and the shot came off perfectly, Woodland said.
He capped his win with a 30-footer for birdie on the final hole.
“His short game was great all week, and that chip on 17 was the defining moment,” Little said. “What Pete and Phil have done is they’ve made him understand the mechanics of chipping and putting; the downward pressure in chipping, keeping the face square longer in putting. He’s so much better now. And more confident.”
Add thinner, too.
Woodland lost 30 pounds during the PGA Tour’s COVID-19 break. He eyed the future, glanced at his birth certificate that proved his advancing age and knew the robust schedule full of big-time tournaments including the FedEx Cup Playoffs, U.S Open and Masters was ahead.
Gary Woodland hits from the fourth tee during a practice round for the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club. Photo by Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports
So he cut out fried food and sugar to lose the weight (he’s added 10 pounds back). After initially losing a touch of his power with his new body, he’s regained all his distance and averages 304.9 yards off the tee this year, good for 32nd on Tour. And he feels fitter and healthier.
“Hanging around Justin Thomas and all these young guys, I need to take care of myself if I want to be here for a lot longer,” he said. “I wanted to feel better … and I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be out here for a long time, and I needed to change my body to do that.”
During the down time, he also relished the time with his family. Seven weeks after winning at Pebble, Gabby gave birth to identical twin girls – Lennox and Maddox. And their son, Jax, turned 3. All healthy and happy.
While all seems good in his world, Woodland is disappointed that he has not built on his U.S. Open triumph. He hasn’t won in 25 worldwide starts since Pebble, a stretch that includes just seven top-10s. He missed the cut in the Open Championship in his next major and tied for 58th in this year’s PGA Championship.
But his confidence has not been shaken.
“I’ll be ready,” he said. “I think overall the game is kind of trending in the right direction. I just have to start to score. With what has happened this year, with not knowing if we’d play again because of the virus, it hasn’t been easy. But we got back playing, and I’ve been looking forward to Winged Foot and I’ll be ready.” Gwk
Former U.S. Open champs Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth making gear changes at Winged Foot
The numbers say don't sleep on Webb Simpson at U.S. Open: 'I like my chances'
Lynch: U.S. Open remains seminal event in Phil Mickelson's career — can he finally win one?