Pittsford, N.Y. — Leave it to Gary Woodland to start the day in last place and two hours later accomplish a golf first.
Woodland did something no golfer in the history of storied Oak Hill Country Club ever had in competition. Woodland is to golf what the young bonus baby with the 100 mph fastball, sharp curve and still-a-work-in-progress command of the strike zone is to baseball. When he’s good, he’s great. The gallery at Oak Hill caught a glimpse of his greatness Sunday during the final round of the PGA Championship.
On the PGA tour website, the first sentence of the description for No. 13, Oak Hill’s signature hole, reads: “This hole has never been reached in two shots, but that could change during the tournament, as someone with two fantastic shots might run one up on the green.”
That someone turned out to be Woodland, whose tee shot crossed a creek that runs across the fairway 300 yards from the tee box. On the first three days of the tournament, Woodland did what players normally do. He teed off with an iron to lay up short of the creek.
“I missed the drive a little bit, kind of hit it off the heel, but it just got over, just into the first cut (of rough),” Woodland said. “I was going to go for it no matter what today. I hit a hard 3-wood (second shot), hit a really good shot. I didn’t know I got there until I got up on the green and saw it in the middle of the green.”
Conversations broke out all over the gallery. “Did he just get on in two?” “No, that must have been his third shot.” “No, I think it’s his second. He drove the creek. Nobody’s ever been on in two.”
Lasts and firsts defined the past couple of weeks for the native of Topeka.
Kansas University’s most accomplished golfer became the last player to qualify for the PGA Championship by winning the Reno-Tahoe Open the previous week. He had a few things going against him going into his first major the year. Normally, Woodland said he plays “at least three or four (18-hole) practice rounds,” on a course preparing for a major. Since he didn’t know he was going to compete at Oak Hill, he played every hole once, nine holes on Tuesday, nine on Wednesday.
He got unlucky on his tee times Thursday and Friday, playing when the wind was strongest in the first round and when the rain was heaviest in the second round. One of these weeks he will get lucky when he’s rested and dropping putts all over the place.
He looked exhausted when it was over and still he finished strong Sunday, carding a 37-33 70, a day after shooting 80. His 33 on the back side came despite a five on No. 15, a par-3 noted for a green-side pond that swallowed his tee shot.
Woodland rarely misses a cut and gets more birdies than most on tour. Once he smoothes out the rough edges of his game, look out. Although he finished the day even par, he only had eight pars on the card to go with six birdies, four bogeys and pair of double-bogeys, those coming when he found green-side water.
The best golfer in the Washburn University basketball program’s history entered the week 66th on the money list. His $540,000 check at the Reno-Tahoe tourney put him past the $1 million mark in 2013 earnings, which doesn’t include endorsements. Yet, his stock is a lot higher than many of the 65 in front of him. You can’t teach getting on No. 13 at Oak Hill in two. That’s a gift. He played the hole in five-under par for the four days. Not many golfers on the planet have the talent to do that.
You can learn how to become more accurate through instruction and practice. At 29, Woodland remains one of the most intriguing prospects on tour.
Injuries have held him back and with his extraordinary swing speed he stands to be more susceptible to back woes and wrist woes. But if he can have a long stretch of good health that enables him to practice as much as he wants, he’ll continue to improve his consistency and it’s easy to see where he can rank in the top 20 on the money list in multiple seasons, as he did in 2011, when he finished in the top 30 in all four majors.
Woodland’s aggressive approach and great length make him a candidate to get hot enough to win a major within the next few years.
His victory last week did more for him than swell his bank account. It earned him exempt status as a PGA tour player through 2015. Otherwise, he would have had to finish in the top 125. He ranked No. 125 going into the tournament, but was trending upward with a return to health from wrist and back woes.
Woodland’s second tour victory, in the Reno-Tahoe Open, was played under different scoring rules than normal stroke play. The modified Stableford scoring system awards eight points for a double eagle, five for an eagle, two for a birdie, minus-1 for a bogey and minus-3 for a double bogey or worse.
“It’s nice to have security the next couple of years,” Woodland said of his recent victory. “I knew I’d been playing well. I made a bunch of cuts, I just hadn’t been making anything go on the weekends. I finally relaxed on the weekend. I played as well on the weekend as I did the first two days and it showed.”
Woodland, accompanied by girlfriend Gabby Granado, flew to New York City after his round for a Monday commitment. They planned to return tonight to Lawrence, where Woodland is overdue for some rest, relaxation and fun rounds of golf with his Lawrence Country Club buddies. After a week off, he will compete in the Barclays at Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J. Nobody should be shocked to see his name high on the leaderboard throughout that tournament.