Player Feature
Gary Woodland
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The long path to major glory
Gary Woodland trophy

This year’s latest major was supposed to identify which of golf’s big hitters was going to arrive in Royal Portrush as the man to beat.

Champions Golfer of the Year in 2014 Rory McIlroy was tipped for glory after victory at the Canadian Open, Dustin Johnson was fancied as a two-time Pebble Beach champion, and world no.1 Brooks Koepka had his sights on a third consecutive US Open crown.

But in the end, it was one of golf’s biggest hitters – in the most literal sense of the term – who emerged victorious in California to claim the first major of his career.

Gary Woodland, who averaged a drive of 309 yards ahead of the tournament, wasn’t one of the first names in the conversation about who might lift the title, but the world No.25 was perhaps a less surprising champion than it seems.

Getting over the line

The 35-year-old had just three PGA Tour wins going into Thursday’s first round, and indeed only recorded his first top-ten finish at a major in last year’s PGA Championship.

But, the Floridian has been well in the mix in many a PGA event, with his composure in final rounds of tournaments being the factor that has ultimately let him down on numerous occasions.

Woodland was 14-over par in the final rounds of major championships since 2017, which ranked 234th out of 236 players going into Sunday.

He went into the final round one stroke ahead of 2013 US Open Champion Justin Rose for what was the eighth time in his career he had held the lead of a tournament after 54 holes.

But for the first time, he was able to demonstrate a new level of composure to fend off the best efforts of Olympic champion Rose, as well as a late charge from four-time major winner Koepka.

It appeared as though Sunday was going to be a battle of fire, as Rose birdied the first hole to take a share of the lead, and Koepka remarkably shot four-under in his first five to fire his way into contention.

With bogies on holes nine and 12, it seemed as though Woodland’s old habits were coming back to haunt him, but a four-foot birdie on the 14th proved pivotal and he stretched his lead to finish with a three-stroke cushion.

Gary Woodland celebrate

Silencing Brooks

The magnitude of his win cannot be overstated. Woodland’s 13-under finish means he is just the fourth US Open champion to be double-digits under-par.

Meanwhile, Koepka’s final round of 68 meant he became the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s at the US Open and not win the title.

The 29-year-old is one of golf’s men of the moment and to stop the winner of three of the previous five majors is no mean feat.

It was something of an exacting of revenge over his fellow Floridian, after Woodland had led the 2018 PGA Championship at the halfway stage, but eventually finished in a tie for sixth as Koepka fought back to claim the second major of his career.

Woodland also got his own back over Xander Schauffele, who tied for third on seven-under, but had pipped him at January’s Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Cowen’s impact

His rise from being simply a raw talent lacking finesse, to a clinical all-rounder, comes just months after linking up with swing coach Pete Cowen on a full-time basis.

Woodland admitted his work with the Yorkshireman has pushed him to the next level after years under the tutelage of Butch Harmon, and that he has finally learned how to keep calm under pressure.

He said: “Butch is the one that recommended me to go to Pete a year and a half ago for the short game.

“Like Butch, he knows what to say and when to say it.

“It’s nice to have him here under huge moments to guide me along the way.

“It took me a lot to learn to control adrenaline; and other sports you use adrenaline to your advantage.

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

“When I first got out here, if I got excited, I couldn’t control it. I didn’t know how far the ball was going, got ahead of myself.

“I’ve learned to take an extra breath and really start controlling everything, and not just the game – controlling the mental side too.”

Gary Woodland swing

From hoops to holes

Woodland’s reference to learning to use adrenaline differently to other sports is particularly pertinent given his background as a talented basketball player.

Having signed to play golf and basketball at Washburn University in Topeka as a freshman, Woodland briefly dabbled between the two before transferring to the University of Kansas to focus on birdies and bunkers.

And Sunday’s victory – on Father’s Day – was something of a sentimental triumph for Woodland, too.

Two years ago, Woodland and his wife Gabby were expecting twins when they lost their daughter three months before son Jax was born ten weeks premature, and the couple recently announced they are due to have identical twins this August.

In 2009, he was competing on the same Pebble Beach course as a rookie looking to cut his teeth on the PGA Tour when his father suffered a life-threatening heart attack.

A decade later, dad Dan was there at the 18th green to see his son seal US Open glory and overcome a tough period off the course in the finest fashion.

Woodland said: “US Open champion sounds really, really good.

“I never let the tournament get ahead of me and think I’ve won, and this is special.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dad, and the way he treated me.

“That’s something I look forward to doing with my son.”

With the final major before The Open now concluded, all eyes turn to Royal Portrush where the action gets underway in just a month’s time.

With Woodland having seemingly learned how to get over the final hurdle, he could certainly be back battling for his second major in just a matter of weeks.