In the last six years, Woodland has acquired a reputation for not finishing the job. Before he teed it up at Pebble Beach in sole possession of the lead on the final day, he’d held the 54-hole lead six times and squandered it.
The Jump Shot. There’s probably no closer equivalent in sport to the golf swing when it comes to athleticism, artistry, and skill, than basketball’s paean to grace. In 2013, while following Gary Woodland’s group at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, (like all of golf’s long hitters, Woodland had a large gallery following him) I heard a sports columnist mention that Woodland had played collegiate basketball in the US before changing track to golf. Curiosity piqued, I spent the evening digging through Washburn University’s sports archives. Woodland played for the school’s Division II for a year and I finally found footage of a game in which Woodland played and scored. I watched, waiting to see an explosion of fast twitch muscles, a fast break…something that would serve as a harbinger to the powerful action Woodland has been known for since he became a professional golfer in 2007. To my surprise, Woodland the basketballer showed absolutely nothing in common with Woodland the golfer—he didn’t have any prodigious speed on the court, and spent the game pitching in for defense.
And then, he got a free throw: he bounced the ball three times, stopped for a couple of seconds, internalising the hoop, and leapt high into the air. Some shots deserve a slow motion replay: the ball rolled back on his palm, and then flew without a wobble, perfectly on its axis, and, in its dying moments softly plopped through the basket. A perfect three-pointer.
At the CIMB that year, Woodland used his length to completely overpower the course, but was outsmarted by Ryan Moore in a playoff. And that was the last time I wrote about him.
In the last six years, Woodland has acquired a reputation for not finishing the job. Before he teed it up at Pebble Beach in sole possession of the lead on the final day, he’d held the 54-hole lead six times and squandered it. And that’s why the punters, your columnist included did not give the big man much of a chance against a stellar chasing group on the final day. Nipping at his heels was world number one Brooks Koepka—who believes, firmly that Major events are his exclusive turf; and former world number ones Adam Scott and Justin Rose. For the record, Koepka, Justin Rose and Adam Scott, have spent a combined 37 weeks at the top of the men’s world rankings.
Scott, made the first move with an eagle and two birdies in a front-nine 31, but lost steam on the back nine. Rose, the 2013 champion, evened things out with an opening birdie, but bogeyed the second hole and never caught Woodland again, who played the first eight holes in two under. Koepka started the day four strokes back but, in a reprise of the kind of play that’s seen him win four of the last nine Majors, knocked in eight one-putts in the first 11 holes to pull within a stroke of Woodland. “All right, man, we’ve got a ballgame now,” Koepka said he was thinking at the time. Koepka shot four rounds in the 60s at the US Open—an amazing achievement that only goes to show just how well Woodland played. “Props to him for the way he hung in there,” Koepka said. It all came together in my head watching Woodland sink his 30-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole at Pebble Beach. Suddenly, I was reminded of that jump shot—the measured grace of it. And that’s when it occurred to me that Woodland has always had that ability and touch—it just got repressed somewhere, obscured by the man’s abilities to hit the ball long.
Woodland, confessed Saturday that he never stood over the ball on practice greens as a youngster pretending he was putting to win his national championship. “I don’t know if I spent any time on a putting green when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh. “I was too busy hitting driver.”
Woodland, still has the power: He’s been ranked seventh to 13th on the PGA tour in driving distance in the last five seasons. In the final round, he on the 582-yard par-5 14th he pummelled the ball 314 yards down the middle off the tee and then sent a 5-wood just over the green. But it was the chip that followed that really demonstrated why he won—downhill from the rough on a fast green that he calmly hit to three feet. On the par-3, 17th hole, his tee shot landed a world away from the pin (91 feet) but he had no trouble getting down in two. For all his explosive shots, Woodland’s newfound abilities to scramble helped him restrict bogies to a paltry four all week. “I have a short game now I can rely on,” Woodland said. “I don’t have to focus on ball striking.”
Things have come full circle for a man who gave up on a career in basketball after the Washburn team got rolled over by Kansas University. Apparently, in an interview he said to TaylorMade, “They were so much bigger and faster then we were. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball as a professional — I probably could’ve gone overseas and played, but I wasn’t going to be able to do it as a career.” He certainly made a career as a pro golfer but for the final push to the summit, he didn’t need to be faster or bigger; nor did he need speed and power, but touch. Which is exactly Woodland the basketballer always had.
(A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game)