U.S. Open champion Woodland shows heart at Pebble Beach and off the course

Herb Gould

What a nice change.

No messy subplots about over-cooked greens. No sticky debates about whether the course was major-worthy. Just a marvelous, entertaining U.S. Open, where Gary Woodland played tough as nails and won himself a championship. Who knew?

We knew Gary Woodland, 35, was a big hitter. In terms of length, he was Brooks Koepka before Brooks Koepka was Brooks Koepka.

But then Koepka matured. Added a short game, including a really nice putting stroke, and reeled off four wins in eight majors.

Coming into Pebble Beach, which was celebrating its 100th birthday, Koepka looked like a good bet to go 5-for-9, including a third straight U.S. Open, something that hadn’t been done since Willie Anderson in 1903-05.

Koepka, 29, nearly did it. He played really good golf. If he hadn’t led the tournament in putts that singed the edge of the cup, he might have won by 10 shots.

But the putts that had dropped for him at the last two U.S. Opens and at the last two PGAs—making him the first golfer to hold a pair of back-to-back major titles at the same time—didn’t fall in nearly the same numbers at Pebble Beach.

They dropped for Woodland, though. He out-Koepka’d Koepka.

When Koepka closed to within one shot on the back nine, Woodland responded. The up-and-down on the par-3 17th was the final answer.

There were a lot of potential turning points. I got the feeling Sunday belonged to Woodland when Koepka faltered on the par-5 sixth and short par-3 seventh.

In perfect position on No. 6, Koepka pushed his long iron and wound up pin-high, but in a bunker. Instead of having an eagle putt, he walked away with a par. On No. 7, Koepka missed a makeable birdie putt—the kind of putt that bedeviled him often during this U.S. Open.

Cheers to Woodland. He played like a champion, not only on Sunday but also on Saturday, when he saved par twice in three holes with epic scrambles.

Koepka again will be a center of pre-tournament attention when this year’s final major, the British Open, is contested at Royal Portrush, in its first return to Northern Ireland since 1951. I have played there and I can’t wait to see the big boys play Calamity, a 236-yard par-3. You can check out my Portrush review here.

Beyond Koepka, Ulstermen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, a Portrush native, also will be pre-tournament notables.

But now Woodland also will be in that spotlight. He has the same imposing combination of length and quality short game that has turned Koepka into a golfing giant.

A former Division II basketball player who left Washburn University to play golf at Kansas after a rough night against the Jayhawks’ Kirk Hinrich, Woodland also has a heart as big as his golf game.

If you haven’t seen the clip of Woodland playing the stadium hole par-3 with Special Olympics golfer Amy Bockerstette, who has Down Syndrome, during a practice round in Phoenix, check it out here.

Woodland’s wife, Gabby, is expecting twins in August. They have a son, Jaxson, who was born 10 weeks prematurely in 2017 after a difficult pregnancy in which she was carrying twins. The other baby did not survive.

Gabby was back home in Florida when Woodland won at Pebble Beach. And Woodland joked that he was surprised to find her still awake when he phoned home after his victory.

All in all, it was an upbeat and dramatic Open at Pebble Beach. This reminded us what an exceptional event the U.S. Open can be when the USGA doesn’t get in the way.

A year ago, there was an undercurrent of chatter about Phil Mickelson swiping at a still-moving ball in an apparent effort to embarrass USGA officials responsible for unfair conditions. Poor greens conditions also were a distraction/hot topic at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.

This Pebble Beach experience was proof that the Open is a much better event without fretting about whether scores go low.

Oh, and by the way, what a great season golf season this is shaping up to be.

Tiger Woods’ triumphant return at the Masters. . . Koepka winning the PGA at Bethpage to become the first back-to-back champion in two majors at the same time. . . Woodland holding off a strong set of challengers with a superb 13-under-par week.

And now, Portrush to look forward to. . .

It will be interesting to see if professional golf’s calendar switch—moving the PGA to May and the FedEx Cup to August—produces the desired effect—to allow the golf season to flourish by concluding before football takes center stage in September.

As much as I am mesmerized by the majors, the FedEx Cup has never really been prominent on my radar. But two thumbs up to moving the PGA championship to May, which has been missing a marquee event.

And two thumbs up to Woodland and Koepka, who have played their way into being stars in a crowded golf-star lineup.


Herb Gould