PEBBLE BEACH, CA. Playing in major championships is a far different situation than your basic professional tournament. Want to add a bit more pressure? Play in the final group and have the 54-hole lead – all for the first time. That’s what Gary Woodland faced entering the final round at Pebble Beach for the 119th US Open.
Woodland saw firsthand what kind of commotion can happen at a major championship when paired with Tiger Woods at last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive. Woods made a dramatic move during the final round shooting a 64 and settling for the runner-up position behind winner Brooks Koepka.
With Woods making birdies from a range of locations it was Woodland who had a ringside seat in terms of how fever-pitched a final round in a major event can be. The roars for Woods can be deafening and Woodland realized what he would need to do to prepare himself should an opportunity present itself. The 35-year-old Kansan accounted himself well at Bellerive with a final round 69 and a 6th place tie. At this year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, Woodland closed with a stellar 68 and a tie for 8th.
Now fast forward to this year’s US Open at the renowned Pebble Beach Golf Links. Woodland led by one over former US Open champion Justin Rose and sitting just behind that twosome was Brooks Koepka — golf’s 800-pound gorilla and the man looking to replicate what had not been done in 114 years — win a 3rd consecutive US Open title and 5th win in the last 9 majors played.
For Woodland the position of being a 3rd round leader in a major championship was a new experience. In previous times when going into the final round of other professionals events either tied or leading outright his record was a not promising 0-7. Having won only three times previously on the PGA Tour and with no real record of accomplishment when competing in major championship play it was hard to envision Woodland doing something he had never done previously. With three of the top four ranked players closing in behind him it would not have taken much in terms of sports wager to think Gary would eventually be caught — with either Rose or Koepka likely doing the honors.
In his past years, Woodland has played high level sports with basketball his primary emphasis. He recognized that while adrenaline was often needed in those action-oriented sports it would take a special resolve to keep calm during crucial moments when playing.
The final round at Pebble prompted a number of those in contention to get off to a fast start as the first seven holes can be had with birdies. Woodland was ever resolute — birdieing two of the first three holes – and showing he was up to the early task. There was a moment when showing some semblance of bowing to the pressure with bogies at the 9th and 12th holes. Then a flared drive to the far right of the 13th fairway reached a critical mass. Woodland lofted a short iron to the 13th hole from deep rough and found a way to escape with par. But, at the demanding dog-leg right uphill par-5 14th it was there that Woodland showed the mark of someone looking to win — rather than not playing to lose.
After a stellar tee shot — he faced a clear option. He could lay-up from roughly 263 yards away as many players had done and look to hit a wedge into the target with this 3rd. Woodland pulled out 3-metal and flushed a second shot that carried the daunting frontal bunker and finished just off the putting surface. From there Woodland was able to make birdie and re-established a control he would never relinquish.
The other crucial moment for Woodland came at the always demanding par-3 17th. The penultimate hole at Pebble Beach has been the scene of unbelievable moments — the Jack Nicklaus 1-iron at the 1972 US Open and the Tom Watson chip-in at the 1982 are etched forever in golf history. Woodland pushed a 5-iron approach way right and was left with a delicate pitch to a green separated in two distinct halves. He could have opted for the safer play and putted the ball across the green and likely leave himself a par putt from 10 feet or more.
In a brilliant display of touch and nerve — Woodland played a lob wedge from 90-feet off the closely cropped turf and with his ball landing just on the far side of an intervening hump he was able to get his shot to no more than kick-in range for his par. For a golfer known mostly for his prodigious tee shots — it was the uncanny sense in displaying such wizardry at the most crucial of moments that sealed the US Open title for Woodland.
Woodland closed out the round in epic fashion — draining a 30-foot birdie at the 18th and the three shot final margin does not begin to tell the kind of pressure packed environment Woodland faced throughout the day. His statement after the round concluded — “I never let myself get ahead” — sums up the focus and determination he showed throughout the championship.
Koepka made a bold move early on with a series of birdies and an improbable par save at the 2nd. After birdieing the par-4 11th Koepka had narrowed the margin to one shot but a loose approach shot at the par-3 12th resulted in bogey and from the 13th to the 18th the four-time major winner could not make another birdie — the most punishing coming at the 18th when his 2nd shot at the par-5 bounced over the green and he failed to make a 9-foot closing birdie to make matters tighter for Woodland. Amazingly, Koepka has now finished as runner-up in this year’s Masters and US Open — alongside his triumph in defending his title at the PGA at Bethpage.
Koepka scored all of his rounds at Pebble below 70 and counting his final round 68 from winning at Shinnecock Hills in 2018 he has played a record five consecutive sub-70 rounds in America’s national championship. While there has been a recent reshuffling of the deck concerning the world’s best player the evidence now states a very clear case, that until further notice, Brooks is without question the man to beat when a major event is happening.
Woodland becomes the 5th consecutive American to win the US Open and more importantly his skills time after time in demonstrating a stellar short game throughout the week were crucial to his overall success. Woodland realized in order to play at the highest of levels he would need to raise the level of his short game and putter. Much time and effort were set aside with his coaching team to do just that. In events where Woodland has previously had leads or was in contention it was often a missed short game shot or a balky putter that sealed his fate.
Not this time.
Woodland’s four rounds included scores of 68-65-69-69 for a 271 total. Bettering the 272 total scored by Woods when winning the 2000 event at Pebble Beach.
The 100th anniversary of the founding of Pebble Beach proved to be an event showcasing the skills of the game’s finest players and did not have the imbroglios of the most recent events. To his immense credit Woodland handled himself superbly in the toughest of cauldrons — major championship play — and it is his mantle where the US Open trophy will call home now through next year’s event at Winged Foot Golf Club.
Now onto Royal Portrush for The Open in mid-July.