Anal­y­sis: Wood­land gets his game-win­ning shot at U.S. Open

The Prince George Citizen - - Sports - Doug FERGUSON

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The stage was among the best in the land. Thou­sands were watch­ing him. Vic­tory was in his grasp. Gary Wood­land didn’t just dream of such a mo­ment, he gen­uinely ex­pected it would hap­pen.

Just not like this.

Wood­land al­ways imag­ined be­ing at Allen Field­house, not Pebble Beach.

He had a bas­ket­ball in his hands, not a put­ter.

“I al­ways be­lieved I would be suc­cess­ful. I be­lieved I would play pro­fes­sional sports. I al­ways be­lieved I would be in this mo­ment,” Wood­land said Sun­day night, the sil­ver U.S. Open tro­phy at his side.

“The ques­tion about if I ever dreamed of mak­ing the putt on the last hole of a U.S. Open when I was a kid? No, I didn’t. But I hit a lot of game-win­ning shots on the bas­ket­ball court when I was a kid. And that’s what I did.”

His win­ning shot at Pebble Beach was more like a break­away dunk in the fi­nal sec­onds with the out­come al­ready se­cure.

Wood­land took care of that with two shots that will stay with him for­ever.

One was a 3-wood from 263 yards that his cad­die, Bren­nan Lit­tle, gave him con­fi­dence to hit when so much could have gone wrong if he had hit it any other di­rec­tion ex­cept where he was aim­ing.

That set up birdie for a two-shot lead, and that shot gave him be­lief to ex­e­cute an­other that looked equally dan­ger­ous. From far right side of the hour­glass green on the par-3 17th to a pin 90 feet away on the left – with a hump in the mid­dle – Wood­land clipped a 64-de­gree wedge so per­fectly that it nearly went in and left a tap-in for par.

That was the game-win­ning shot. That was Kansas win­ning the NCAA ti­tle, and beat­ing a dy­nasty in the process.

Wood­land’s clutch play – he tied a U.S. Open record by mak­ing only four bo­geys all week – was enough to turn back Brooks Koepka and his bid to rally from four shots be­hind and win a third straight U.S. Open to tie the record Wil­lie An­der­son set in 1905.

That it was Koepka who pro­vided the last chal­lenge was only fit­ting.

Koepka has emerged as the great­est threat in ma­jors, and even a run­ner-up fin­ish did not change that. He won the PGA Cham­pi­onship (for the sec­ond straight year) and was run­ner-up in the Masters and the U.S. Open. Since re­turn­ing from an an­kle in­jury in 2016, he has eight top 10s in 11 ma­jors, four of them vic­to­ries.

Koepka also faced an ath­letic fig­ure just as un­flap­pable in Wood­land.

Wood­land rarely showed any emo­tion dur­ing a week that af­forded plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties. He was fired up about a par save on No. 8 in the sec­ond round. He slammed his fist when he chipped in for par on the 13th hole in the third round. And he let it all hang out – and only then – af­ter his 30-foot birdie putt to close out the U.S. Open. More than a 69, it gave him a 13-un­der 271, the low­est score in six U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach.

That was by de­sign. He learned from the re­ac­tive sports he played – bas­ket­ball and base­ball – that emo­tion can help. Golf?

Not so much.

“Out here, when I get a lit­tle ex­cited, I need to find a way to calm my­self down,” he said.

The bas­ket­ball ref­er­ences will stay with Wood­land, and that’s OK with him. They were real.

He was all-state as a se­nior, but when he didn’t get any Divi­sion I of­fers, he signed with Wash­burn. His first game was in Allen Field­house.

“They were ranked No. 1 in Divi­sion I, and we were ranked No. 2 in Divi­sion II,” Wood­land said.

“I was guard­ing Kirk Hin­rich, and was like, ‘OK, I need to find some­thing else be­cause this ain’t gonna work.’ And that was my first game in col­lege.”

He trans­ferred to Kansas, the first time he fo­cused solely on golf.

Wood­land is 35, but it’s fair to call him a late bloomer. He could al­ways hit the ball a long way – that came from his base­ball days – but the pol­ish came later. His first year on the PGA Tour was in­ter­rupted by a shoul­der in­jury.

“I don’t think my game is where it needs to be, but it’s get­ting there,” he said.

“I’m be­com­ing a more com­plete player. I have more shots. I can rely more on my putting, rely on my short game, things I couldn’t do even last year.”

He doesn’t use that as an ex­cuse. Wood­land felt he should have won more than the three PGA Tour ti­tles he had un­til win­ning the U.S. Open, in­clud­ing an op­po­site-field event be­cause he wasn’t el­i­gi­ble for a World Golf Cham­pi­onship.

He didn’t have the pedi­gree of some play­ers groomed for golf since they were barely out of di­a­pers. But he knew how to com­pete.

“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. 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. And I haven’t been able to do that as much as I’d like to in golf.

“It’s taken awhile, but I think we’re trend­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

AP PHOTO BY MAR­CIO JOSE SANCHEZ

Gary Wood­land watches his tee shot on the first hole dur­ing the fi­nal round of the U.S. Open Cham­pi­onship golf tour­na­ment on Sun­day in Pebble Beach, Calif.

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