December 10, 2019 | Pebble Beach, Calif.
By Dave Shedloski
There always has been a quiet toughness and self-assuredness about Gary Woodland, but it had never really manifested on a golf course the way it did at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the 119th U.S. Open.
On a dank June afternoon on the famous links course hard by the Pacific Ocean, Woodland exhibited the kind of hard-nosed resolve typical of a U.S. Open champion. He blasted long shots. He put the right touch on short ones. He didn’t wither or recoil when two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and 2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose tried to apply a little heat on a chilly Father’s Day. In the end, he answered all the questions asked of a U.S. Open champion.
And he was justly rewarded.
In the same steely manner that fellow Kansas native Tom Watson held off Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 championship at Pebble Beach, Woodland refused to buckle down the stretch and finished off his first national title in clutch fashion, firing a 2-under-par 69 for a three-stroke victory over the irrepressible Koepka.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” said Woodland, 34, who suffered just four bogeys all week in finishing at 13-under-par 271, a stroke better than Tiger Woods’ winning total in his record 15-stroke triumph at Pebble Beach in 2000. “No matter what I’ve done, from when I was a young kid, I always believed I would be successful. I believed I would play professional sports. I always believed I would be in this moment.
“And 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.”
A member of two state championship basketball teams, Woodland did it after clanking more than a few shots off the rim – or in this case, the edge of the hole. He had entered the final round one stroke ahead of Rose and with a proven record of disappointment with a 54-hole lead, losing after each of the seven occasions when he began the final round out front. Furthermore, he had never finished better than 23rd in eight U.S. Open starts.
That all changed as he held onto the lead after each of the last three rounds with some eye-popping scores. His 9-under 133 through two rounds bettered Woods’ 36-hole score from 2000, and after 69 on Saturday, his 11-under 202 total through three rounds tied the third-lowest 54-hole score in U.S. Open history.
He never appeared flustered in the final round when first Rose and then Koepka threatened. Paired with Woodland in the final group, Rose birdied the opening hole to tie things up. Woodland answered with birdies at Nos. 2 and 3. The Englishman would struggle to a 74 and ended up in a third-place logjam at 7-under 277.
Then Koepka, winner of four of his last eight majors and going for a record-tying third straight U.S. Open title, took a run at him, getting within a stroke with a birdie at No. 11. Again, Woodland responded. At the par-5 14th he reached the left fringe of the green in two thanks to a towering 3-wood from 263 yards out. He got down in two for birdie.
He also birdied the 18th with a 30-foot putt, but not before a bit of Watson-like magic at No. 17. Woodland fanned his iron shot onto the lower-right portion of the hourglass-shaped green, some 90 feet from the hole. Using his 64-degree wedge, Woodland landed his pitch shot just over the hump bisecting the green and the ball checked up 2 feet from the hole.
“The 3-wood at 14, I think, gave me the confidence to even execute the shot on 17,” said Woodland, ranked 25th in the world. “There’s a lot that could have gone wrong. I felt better after hitting that shot than I had in a long, long time on the golf course.”
Rose, who knows about handling U.S. Open pressure, was impressed. “He stayed calm all day. He looks calm all the time. You never know what is going on. He was unflappable."
“Gary played a great four days,” said Koepka, who closed with a 68 to finish at 10-under 274. “That's what you've got to do if you want to win a U.S. Open, win a major championship, and hats off to him.”
Willie Anderson, who won his third U.S. Open in a row in 1905, remains the only man with that distinction as Koepka became the first player in U.S. Open history to shoot five straight rounds in the 60s. Unfortunately, he also became the first man in U.S. Open history to post four sub-70 rounds and not win the trophy.
After completing his fourth career victory, Woodland shared a story from his basketball days. It seems he once caught a knee in the throat in a high-school game that landed him in the hospital with a collapsed trachea. Three days later, he was back on the court and led his team to victory with 20 points.
“The guy was trying to dunk on me,” Woodland said, recalling why he defiantly stood his ground.
His windpipe might have been tightening in Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach, but he wasn’t going to choke. He wasn’t going to let anyone dunk on him.