PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — With nerve, strength, touch and everything else he needed in the clutch, Gary Woodland essentially said, “I’ve got this.” In the end, the got the U.S. Open trophy and a whole new life as a major champion.
Woodland completed his self-reinvention from a small-college basketball player to a big-time golfer by finishing 13 under par at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He boldly hit the par-5 14th green in two and birdied, he chipped it stiff from the front of the green on the par-3 17th, then topped it off with a birdie on the par-5 18th for a three-shot win over two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka.
That meant Koepka fell just short of becoming the first American golfer to win three consecutive U.S. Opens and only the second player ever, following Willie Anderson in 1905. “You kind of realize, ‘Wow I was that close to something that hasn’t been done in 110 years,’ ” Koepka said. “I don’t think anybody in the world played as well as Gary did this weekend. Gary played a hell of a round. To finish it out like that, that was cool.”
In a way, Woodland out-Koepka’d Koepka, drilling a 263-yard 3-wood onto the green on 14 to regain momentum over his fellow power hitter, the one who has won four major titles in the past two years, including the PGA last month at Bethpage. “The idea,” Woodland said, “was to play to win.”
Woodland, 35, of Topeka, Kan., had won three tournaments, but never had been close to a major before. His vastly improved short game shone this week, proving that he has plenty of game. He shot a final round 2-under-par 69, pulling away from his playing companion and friend Justin Rose (74), who tied Woodland on the first hole but finished six strokes back. Koepka shot 68.
The winner received a hug from his dad just off the 18th green on Father’s Day. The winner’s own son was home in Florida with Woodland’s wife, who is pregnant with twins.
Earlier this year, Woodland said his most exciting moment on a golf course occurred during a practice round for the Waste Management Phoenix Open. That was when, as defending champion doing a promotion with Special Olympics, he invited Amy Bockerstette, a 20-year-old woman with Down Syndrome, to hit a shot.
She did, and to Woodland’s delight, also hit a clean shot out of a bunker. Finally, after telling herself, “I got this,” she made the par putt. Woodland raised his hands in triumph and told her, with words captured in a video gone viral, “You’re our hero.”
On Saturday evening, with Woodland leading the U.S. Open by two strokes, the Twitter account of Amy Bockerstette featured this post: “You’ve got this @GaryWoodland!”
What Woodland always has had was a gift for competition. He loved basketball so much that he overcame being hit in the trachea during a high school game in Topeka, Kan. —before being hauled off on a stretcher —and came back with a 20-plus point game three nights later. He tried Division II ball at Washburn University but was too small and skinny. He switched to golf and Kansas University.
“In basketball, you’re not always going to have your best. But you find ways. If I’m not shooting well, I can pass. I can play defense. There’s other things I can do,” he said. Woodland was not always sharp Sunday, but he did what he needed to when he had to do it.
With the Open on the line, he hit the most delicate shot imaginable, a long pitch from the green (he didn’t have a direct line for a putt) on the 17th hole and nearly holed it. He saved par and protected his two-stroke lead, right after Koepka had missed his birdie putt on 18.
Tiger Woods, who won the 2000 Open here at 12 under, said of Woodland, “He’s doing all the little things. If you watch his rounds, he misses the balls in the correct spots, leaves himself the easier up-and-downs … there’s been a handful of guys (who) have figured out what’s best for them, and he’s certainly figured out what’s best for him.”
Woodland said, “I never let myself get ahead, never thought the tournament was over. It was special to finish it off at Pebble Beach.”
He was holding what he had newly gotten: the U.S. Open trophy.