Pete Cowen had given Gary Woodland everything he needed to succeed this week, so on Sunday morning he simply sent his pupil a text that had nothing to do with the golf swing or technique.
“It read, ‘Every man dies, but not every man lives, and you live for this moment,’ ” Woodland recounted.
At the critical moments on Sunday, Woodland did just that. With World No. 1 Brooks Koepka throwing haymakers early, pouring in four birdies in his first five holes in his bid for a third straight U.S. Open title, Woodland never blinked. He made two early birdies of his own, withstood a pair of bogeys at Nos. 8 and 9 and at the par-5 14th hole, hit a shot that joins Pebble Beach lore. From 263 yards, Woodland smoked a 3-wood that barely cleared the front green side bunker and stopped in the rough just left of the green. Woodland conceded that he considered laying up but was spurred on by caddie Brennan Little to go for it. “It was one of the better swings I made all week,” Woodland said.
Was it ever. He chipped inside 4 feet of the hole and converted the birdie putt to extend his lead to two. Koepka never got closer the rest of the way, and Woodland finished in style with a birdie at the last to shoot four rounds in the 60s and claim the 119th U.S. Open by three strokes.
It was a long journey to becoming a major champion in golf. Born in Topeka, Kansas, Woodland, 35, starred on the basketball court and led his high school team to two state championships. He dreamed of playing hoops at the University of Kansas, a perennial powerhouse, who played its home games at famed Allen Fieldhouse. Woodland debuted there in his first college game in 2002 except he was playing against No. 1-ranked Kansas as a member of Washburn University, a small Division II school he attended on a basketball scholarship. That game all but ended his hoops dream.
“I was guarding Kirk Hinrich, and, like, okay, I need to find something else, because this ain't gonna work,” Woodland said.
He left after his freshman season to accept a golf scholarship at Kansas and won four times before turning professional in 2007.
With his ability to hit tape-measure drives into the wild blue yonder, Woodland dazzled with his raw promise. When he started working with Butch Harmon, Woodland barely knew how to hit a draw. Early sessions with Harmon consisted of long hours on the range that left Woodland’s hands bloody.
“First week I had tape on every finger and blisters on both hands,” he recalled.
“We worked 6 hours a day for seven straight days. The first day we worked for 6 hours on the take away of the golf club. The next few days we just focused on the follow through. Then we tried to put it together.”
Matt Kuchar, who hung around to congratulate his friend outside of scoring, has been a regular practice-round partner of Woodland’s and marveled at his improvement into a complete player after hours of trial and error.
“It used to be a one-way street where I felt like I was collecting most weeks. It’s not that way anymore,” Kuchar said. “I’ve been paying him more than I’ve been collecting.”
It was Harmon who suggested that Woodland seek help on his short game from Cowen 18 months ago. And when Harmon retired, Woodland began working with Cowen on the full swing in December. It paid dividends this week when Woodland struggled with his ball striking on Thursday.
“I went straight to the range, and we worked for a long time to figure it out,” Woodland said.
Putting was the last piece of the puzzle for Woodland. At the 2018 Open Championship, Woodland met with golf's putting whisperer, Phil Kenyon, who has shown the likes of Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and reigning Champion Golfer of the Year Francesco Molinari how to hole more putts. It didn't take long for Kenyon to pinpoint the flaws in Woodland's stroke. Nevertheless, at the PGA Championship in May, Woodland suffered through one of his least fruitful weeks on the greens.
“But he told me it was the best he's ever seen my stroke,” Woodland said.
They worked on his green reading and the putts started to fall. Woodland ranked second in Strokes Gained: Putting this week.The final ingredient was his unofficial mental coach, Amy Bockerstette, a 20-year-old with Down Syndrome. Woodland met her at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February and invited her to play the par-3 16th hole. The video of her making a par went viral.
“She's meant everything for me from a mental standpoint. The world needs more of her in it. Her attitude, her love for life, love for the game and her positive energy is so contagious,” Woodland said. “Amy told me a million times when we were on this whole I've got this, I've got this, and I told myself that a million times today, I've got this.”
Shane Lowry played alongside Woodland during the first two days when he grabbed the lead with rounds of 68-65 and said, “he did everything you need to do to win a big tournament.” Woodland, who was winless the previous seven times he held the 54-hole lead, had to fend off Koepka, who aided by eight one-putt greens in his first 11 holes, pulled to within a stroke of the lead.
“I felt like, We’ve got a ballgame now,” Koepka said.
A bogey at 12 blunted his charge and Koepka parred the last six holes as his putter cooled. He has finished first or second in five of his last six major starts.
Woodland had one more trick up his sleeve. On the par-3 17th, he pushed his tee shot to the far-right side of the hourglass-shaped green. With the back-left hole location 93 feet away, Woodland chipped a 64-degree lob wedge from the fringe to 2 feet to save par and maintain his two-shot lead.
“I thought he’d be lucky to get it within 20 feet,” Kuchar said.
Ever the consummate pro, Woodland stayed focused only on the present. The par-5 18th at Pebble, which hugs the Pacific to the left, is hardly a cream puff. Woodland played it in textbook fashion, feathering his approach safely on the green and then curling his 30-foot birdie putt into the hole for a 2-under 69, giving him the lowest 72-hole score (13-under 271) in six U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach and a three-shot victory over Koepka.
“I knew the putt was big,” Woodland said. “I knew Tiger shot 12-under here when he won in 2000.”
One of the first to congratulate him behind the 18th green was none other than Woodland’s father, Dan, and they embraced in a bear hug.
“Happy Father’s Day,” Woodland said.
Those words have grown in meaning since Woodland became a father. In March 2017, Woodland withdrew from the WGC-Dell Match Play when his wife, Gabby, who was pregnant with twins, lost one of the babies, a girl, due to complications. Son Jaxson turns two next week, and Woodland shared the good news that the couple is expecting identical twin girls in August.
Yes, that is a moment that Woodland can’t wait to live for, too. He said he never dreamed of making the putt to win the U.S. Open, but he had some good practice.
“I hit a lot of game-winning shots on the basketball court when I was a kid,” he said. “And that's what I did.”
This one was a perfect swish.
McIlroy finishes top 10 at Pebble Beach after rollercoaster round
Rory McIlroy left Pebble Beach Golf Links with his 20th top-10 finish at a major championship, but that was small consolation for the Northern Irishman.
Coming off his dominating 64-61 weekend to win the RBC Canadian Open, he was hoping to complete the rare double and win national championships back-to-back.
It wasn’t to be as McIlroy made an early double bogey at the second hole on Sunday, the start of a rollercoaster round that left him signing for a 1-over 72 and a 72-hole total of 5-under 279.
McIlroy finished eight strokes behind American Gary Woodland, winner of the 119th U.S. Open, who claimed his first major championship.
Pebble Beach never seemed to be a good fit for McIlroy as the short layout, tipping in at just over 7,000 yards, limited him to about five drivers per round and neutralized one of his chief strengths. Ironically, it was a poor drive at the second hole that sealed his fate. McIlroy entered the final round five strokes off the lead, but with only five golfers in front of him.
After a routine par at the first, McIlroy tugged his tee shot into the heavy rough and had an awkward stance above the left bunker. He took a wedge, accepting his medicine, and took a big hack, but the club twisted in the fescue and he advanced the ball only a few yards into the bunker.
McIlroy stood with his hands on his hips and had no choice but to swing for the green in hopes of avoiding a big number. He dumped the next shot into the right green side bunker and missed the putt. For all intents and purpose, his chances to claim the trophy were over.
McIlroy rebounded to make six birdies during the round, but there were more miscues too, including another double bogey at 16. McIlroy declined to speak to the media after his round, and probably will find little joy in learning that this marked the sixth consecutive season he’s placed T-10 or better in at least two majors.
The final round also was the toughest day for fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell, who carded a 1-over 72 to finish a respectable T-16, nine years after his victory here. McDowell didn’t make a birdie until his 12th hole on Sunday. A double bogey at the ninth for an outward 38 took him out of the trophy hunt too.
“I made a big mistake on nine, a double cross, hit the path and made double,” McDowell said. “From there it was always going to be a tough day.”
McDowell rallied with three birdies in his final five holes, including at 18 to shoot 3-under 281.
“The whole week has been a grind,” McDowell said.
“I didn’t have my best stuff today but I was really proud of the way I hung in there that back nine. The golf course was just a tad long for me this week. It was cold and not much run on the fairways and its no surprise to guys like Woodland and (Brooks) Koepka up there because you had to move it off the tee this week. It helped if you could get it down the fairway and have a shorter iron in your hands. All in all, good progress, continued the rebuild and good stuff this week, very happy.”
Shane Lowry brought up the rear among the Irish contingent, but was pleasantly pleased with his finish. He chipped in with his lob wedge on the 17th hole for birdie and reached the par-5 18th in two with driver-5-iron and closed in birdie for a 2-under 69.
“I don’t know how I broke 70 today because it was a struggle,” Lowry said. “But I saved my best two swings of the week for last."
McDowell and Lowry will be back in action at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch, while McIlroy will return at the Scottish Open the following week in the lead up to the Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
US Open day four: Woodland sees off Koepka to clinch first major title
American Gary Woodland combined raw power and a sublime touch to see off the challenge of defending champion Brooks Koepka and claim his first major title in the 119th US Open.
Woodland carded a final round of 69 at Pebble Beach to finish 13 under par and three shots clear of Koepka, who had threatened to become just the second player to win three straight US Opens and claim an amazing fifth major victory in his last nine starts.
England’s Justin Rose was tied for the lead after a birdie on the opening hole but faded on the back nine to share third with Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele and Chez Reavie, while the expected challenge from Rory McIlroy never materialised after a double bogey on the second.
Woodland had failed to convert any of his seven 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour into a win, but the 35-year-old from Kansas withstood the stubborn challenge of Rose and early charge from Koepka to land the title and first prize of 2.25million US dollars.
Amy Bockerstette became Gary Woodland’s biggest fan after the video of her playing a hole with him during a practice round in Phoenix last year went viral and she was watching when he won on Sunday.
Nice quote from @BKoepka earlier, paying tribute to US Open champion @GaryWoodland : "On 18 I realised I was that close to accomplishing something that has not been done in more than 100 years + that's special, but I don't think anybody in the world played as good as Gary did"— Phil Casey (@pcaseysafc) June 17, 2019
Brooks Koepka reflects on his attempt to become the first player since Willie Anderson (1903-05) to win a hat-trick of US Open titles, but pays fitting tribute to Woodland.
No player has ever shot in the 60s all four rounds at the U.S. Open and not won. Looks like Koepka will be the first.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) June 17, 2019
Koepka missed out on becoming the second player to win three straight US Open titles, but still made history.
It was a close call between Woodland’s approach to the par-five 14th or his pitch on the 17th green, but the man himself felt the former gave him the confidence to attempt the latter.
Who else but Woodland, who saw Koepka birdie four of the first five holes but responded with two early birdies himself and some clutch shots down the stretch.
The par-five sixth was the easiest hole all four days and gave up three eagles and 41 birdies on Sunday for a scoring average of 4.468.
For the third day in a row the ninth was the hardest hole, the back tee stretching it to 520 yards and resulting in just seven birdies being made against 19 bogeys and eight double bogeys for an average of 4.354.
Gary Woodland’s world ranking from 25th to a career-high of 12th after his three-shot victory.