Gary Woodland on the mental trick that helped him to US Open glory
Going into Sunday, Gary Woodland had led seven tournaments after 54 holes. He had won none of them.
Before Brooks Koepka, there was Gary Woodland.
The Kansas native was a collegiate golf star and won four big tournaments on that circuit before, at his first crack, he qualified for the PGA Tour. Powerfully built, Woodland won renown as a guy with a booming drive. He was destined to win big trophies.
The years passed and stretched to a decade. There were two tour wins, a loss to Rory McIlroy in the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play final and a rankings high of 32. A decent career as a jobbing golfer but he had never quite fulfilled that promise shown in his early 20s.
"It was tough"
That all began to change in 2018, eight months after a jolt that any of us would struggle to deal with. In June 2017, Woodland and his wife Gabby were expecting twins - a boy and a girl - when complications arose.
Gabby miscarried and they lost the baby girl but their son, Jaxson, survived after being born 10 weeks premature. Woodland was devastated, yet grateful for a son that he called his 'little miracle'.
"I probably didn't realise how special it all was until I became a father," Woodland reflected. "Obviously, we had our struggles, and it's been documented, the losses that we've suffered. We lost a couple last year, as well. And it was tough. We thought we were done, and the identical twin girls were a surprise."
After some time away from the sport, Woodland returned and closed out the year in steady yet unspectacular style. 2018 saw him win his third career victory on the PGA Tour and finish tied 6th in the US PGA, which was won by Koepka.
2019 has been his best year since he turned pro, 11 years ago. Coming into the US Open at Pebble Beach, the 35-year-old had eight Top 10 finishes, including an 8th place finish at the US PGA. Still, few would have backed him to get the job done in a field stacked with the world's best and with so many of them in decent form.
Woodland led the way after 36 and then 54 holes. Paul Azinger tipped Justin Rose (one shot back before the final round) to get the job done, Rory McIlroy (five back) knew he needed a fast start and just about everyone else was looking out for Koepka. Woodland later commented:
"I think the big deal is to enjoy the pressure. Obviously it's an uncomfortable situation leading in a major championship after 36 holes, after 54 holes. But I kept telling myself, even this morning, to enjoy this moment. Enjoy the pressure. Enjoy the stress. Enjoy being uncomfortable. And don't shy away from it, embrace it.
"And that's what I really tried to do, is embrace that pressure all day. And I think that helped me stay a little more calm."
Koepka - the four-time Major winner and reigning US Open champ - began his Sunday four shots behind but set off like a bullet train. Four birdies in the opening five holes and an outrageous par save on the second.
Lost, to many, in the early Koepka hysteria was Woodland picking up two shots in his opening three holes. Winning at Pebble Beach often requires golfers to feather their nest over the opening seven holes, cling on for deal life from 8 to 13, and trying to pick up a shot or two on the two big par fives down the closing stretch.
That is exactly how Sunday played out for Woodland. -13 after eight holes, he was back to -11 and just one clear heading to the 14th. He thwacked a good drive down the fairway and then, with three-wood in hand, showed incredible steel to take on the bunker guarding the front of the green. His brave shot paid off and effectively won him the tournament:
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 17, 2019
There were still challenges to navigate over the final four holes - notably when he had to chip from one side of a 'figure 8' green to the other - but Woodland would not be deterred.
There was even the added cherry of a birdie on the 18th to finish on -13, three clear of Koepka. Xander Schauffele, who finished tied for third with Jon Rahm, spoke about the enormity of seeing off a red-hot Koepka. "If you want to quote me," Schauffele remarked, "Brooks is a cockroach. He'll probably laugh at that!"
Woodland won his first ever Major by seeing off the world's best player (Koepka), world number three, Justin Rose, and anyone else that took a ticket for the ride.
Following his closing round of 69 - his fourth straight in the 60s at Pebble - Woodland spoke with reporters about the mental trick he used that morning to settle himself.
Woodland was handy at college basketball, back when he was at Washburn then University of Kansas. An old basketball trick worked a treat, as he revealed:
"You know, I shot free throws really well. I shot 90%. I did it in college, as well. And I counted in my head. And that's what I do when I hit golf shots, on putts, I count in my head, one, two, three, and I go after three. That calms me down.
"Mark Steinberg (my agent) called me last night and said, 'I want you to hit 30 free throws in a row tomorrow'.
"Counting blocks out the situation, it blocks out the outside noise. So I rely on trying to transition that free-throw shooting into my golf shot every time I hit."
An inspirational victory for Woodland and another reason to never stop believing.
A new trick, too, to focus the mind next time you are out on the course.