PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland once took a knee to the trachea playing basketball and returned to the court three days later. You think he’s going to be scared by a little golf shot?
Woodland, who won the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Sunday by three shots, faced two different career-making shots on Sunday, and pulled off both with such mastery you wonder why the guy’s only on his first major victory.
Start at the 14th hole, the most wicked par 5 in all of golf. Woodland, who’d began the day with the lead, was watching it crumble. Up ahead, Brooks Koepka, destroyer of worlds, was carving up the course in search of his third straight U.S. Open win. Next to Woodland stood Justin Rose, who had won a U.S. Open when virtually the entire gallery was rooting for Phil Mickelson.
And here was Woodland, journeyman golfer, pro since 2007 but a winner only three times since then, a guy who’d vaulted from obscurity to the Friday and Saturday night leads. All other things being equal, Woodland would be the third of the three horses you’d pick to bring home this trophy.
He stood in the fairway at 14, 255 yards out from the pin, looking up at a green so high it might as well have been atop a building. He and his caddie Brennan Little sized up the situation: lay up and play for the par, or go big and go strong.
Woodland speculated that laying up might be a smarter play. But Little was emphatic.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” he said. “Let’s hit 3-wood.”
The stakes: the U.S. Open lead. Ahead, Koepka was on the 15th green, 39 feet from the hole and putting for a birdie that would have given him a share of the lead. A bad shot here from Woodland — a shot into the bunker, a shot over the pool table-sized green, a shot wide left or right — and he wouldn’t just be sharing the lead with Koepka, he’d be handing it over.
Woodland has a routine he goes through every time he hits a shot, a technique he picked up from his days as a basketball player: count one, two, three, slowly, and then pull the trigger. It once helped him nail 14 of 15 free throws in a state title game. And now it was about to help him win the U.S. Open.
One. Two. Three. Swing.
The ball tracked straight at the pin, arcing down, down, down … and landed just over the bunker, bouncing and kicking to the right fringe of the green. From there, Woodland would sink a birdie to put two shots’ distance between himself and Koepka — and the defending champion wouldn’t get any closer.
“To execute that shot under the pressure, under the situation, that shot gave me the confidence,” Woodland said. “I felt better after hitting that shot on the golf course today than I had in a long, long time.”
He would need that confidence three holes later, standing on the green at 17. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in golf, the sweep of Stillwater Cove and the fog-shrouded mountains all around, the sound of waves crashing on rocks just beyond the green a constant presence. But at that exact moment, Woodland was again facing a shot that would define his U.S. Open.
He’d tossed his club in frustration after swinging off the tee at 17. The ball reached the green, yes, but it was a good 90 feet and one huge rise from the cup. Ahead on the 18th, Koepka was on the green. Woodland had no idea how Koepka was playing. Was he shooting for a birdie that would remove all margin of error from Woodland’s two-shot lead? Was he shooting for an eagle that would erase it?
Woodland didn’t have a choice. He had to play smart, if not overly aggressive. He had to chip on the green — a move that will get you thrown off your golf course, but a move that Woodland had to attempt to keep his hopes alive.
“If I putted it, I don’t think I could have got within 20 feet,” he said. “I was just trying to … get it past the hole so I could be putting back uphill, and it came off perfectly.”
That’s putting it mildly. The 90-foot shot ended up 28 inches from the hole. A par putt later, a birdie miss from Koepka, and all that was left was a long, triumphant walk up the 18th green at Pebble Beach.
Two shots. Two little miracles. One hell of a tournament.
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