U.S. Open: Gary Woodland prepares for the biggest day of his career

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — If this were a basketball game, a sport where Gary Woodland’s just as comfortable as golf, this would be the point when everyone would hold up four fingers. Woodland’s holding the equivalent of a one-point lead over Justin Rose in the U.S. Open, and Sunday brings the final quarter.

Woodland came into Saturday at Pebble Beach with a two-shot lead over Rose, and he saw that lead halved. In between, he played some impressive major-championship golf, saving himself from backbreaking bogeys and coming through on from-downtown birdies. He finished the day at -11 after carding a -2, but his round felt much more consequential than that. He had a lead, and he held the lead, which is something that couldn’t be said about the last time he was in this position.

[Related: U.S. Open leaderboard]

Ten months ago, Woodland held the lead after the second round of the PGA Championship, then was paired with Tiger Woods on the final day of the tournament. That was the day Woods — who hadn’t yet won the Tour Championship signaling his comeback was complete — laid down a 64 that fired up the crowd, and still lost to Brooks Koepka by two strokes. In all that, Woodland was an afterthought.

Not now, though. Now, Woodland is leading the show, and the way he’s playing — first in the tournament in strokes gained, also first in the much-less-analytical how-the-hell-did-he-drain-that category — he might just be Toronto Raptors of this particular tournament.

Take, for instance, this one from downtown on No. 12:

Or perhaps this Stephen Curry-esque bang from 42 feet out on No. 14:

All of which brings us back to basketball. Woodland didn’t follow the usual country-club track to the Tour; he was a good enough basketball player that he started for Division II Washburn. In a now-legendary story, he got absolutely decimated when he went up against Kansas in an exhibition game, a moment which made him realize that perhaps basketball wasn’t his future. He switched to golf, transferred to Kansas and found his true calling.

There are plenty of basketball fans among the golf ranks — Rory McIlroy, for one, is a hardcore NBA fan, and the Anthony Davis trade was the talk of the gallery Saturday afternoon — but few have quite the front-line experience that Woodland does.

“Basketball, you're not always going to have your best, but you find ways -- if I'm not shooting well, I can pass, I can play defense. There's other things I can do,” he said. “I can take that to golf. If I'm not driving the golf ball, now I can rely on something else to really get me through. It took me a while to get my game to that position, but I feel like I'm comfortable doing that now.”

As any basketball fan knows, every team makes a run, and Rose is doing that now. Woodland gets the chance to respond on Sunday, and from one perspective, it’s a bit easier playing golf than basketball when it comes to pressure.

“We have a little more time to think [on a golf course],” Woodland said. “The good thing is we're at Pebble Beach, so there's a lot of beauty out here where you can relax and take it in. Basketball is a little more reaction. Here you've got to control yourself and stay within yourself and stick to your game plan. And fortunately I did that [Saturday].”

Woodland and Rose, paired once again, tee off at 5:30 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon. And their battle might well come down to a last-second shot.


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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