In 1992, after he had finally won his first major championship, an exhausted Tom Kite shook his head and said, “Well, now I know what the first sentence of my obituary will say.”
That comment came after he had won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach on one of the most treacherous days in golf history. The USGA was still playing the golf course at its natural par 72 (nowadays it turns the par-5 second hole into a par 4, making par 71). Kite, at three-under-par 285, and Jeff Sluman, at one-under 287, were the only players to finish under par after a Sunday filled with near hurricane-like conditions.
Twenty-seven years after Kite’s first and only major victory, Gary Woodland also rewrote his life story. At 35, Woodland is seven years younger than Kite was when he won. Woodland has never worn the label “best player to have never won a major” the way Kite did for many years, but he’s now on a remarkable list of players who have on the Open at Pebble Beach.
Consider: Jack Nicklaus; Tom Watson; Kite; Tiger Woods; Graeme McDowell. And now, Woodland. He’s also in the same sentence with Nicklaus and Watson (decent company) because he all but ensured his victory with an extraordinary shot at Pebble’s 17th hole, one of the great par 3s in golf.
In 1972, Nicklaus hit the flag at 17 with a 1-iron, to hold off Australian Bruce Crampton; 10 years later, Watson holed his wedge shot from the rough left of the 17th green to beat Nicklaus. On Sunday, Woodland hit an iffy 5-iron off the tee at 17 and found himself on the far right side of the hourglass green—on the wrong side of the green’s hump—facing a shot almost as difficult as Watson’s. He hit a gorgeous wedge, his ball hitting, skipping, then skidding to a near halt, ending up inside two feet.
Come on down and get your U.S. Open trophy Mr. Woodland. The bravura birdie from 30-feet on 18 was, much like Watson’s birdie in 1982, an exclamation point.
Woodland also joined another exclusive list: Players who have held off Brooks Koepka on Sunday at a major. Someone named Tiger Woods did it in April at the Masters, and Woodland managed to do it coming down the stretch at Pebble Beach.
With all due respect to the winner’s gutsy performance, Koepka’s week was perhaps inches shy of Woodland’s. Going back to Shinnecock Hills a year ago when he won his second straight Open, Koepka’s major finishes are 1, T-39 (the outlier), 1, T-2, 1, 2. The only majors string that surpasses that is Woods’ 1-1-1-1 beginning with his astonishing performance at Pebble Beach in 2000, which was part of an 11-majors run in which he won seven times.
Woods was at Pebble Beach, as was his BFF, Phil Mickelson. Neither ever got into serious contention, although after Woods made an early birdie on Saturday to pull within nine shots of Woodland’s lead at that moment, one of the various “Tiger Trackers” exulted with, “Drano—25 feet! The march to No. 16 is on.”
Woods finished tied for 21st and the march will now move to Northern Ireland next month. Not surprisingly, Mickelson had trouble with the tighter fairways and higher rough the USGA brings into play during an Open than the PGA Tour does in February for the AT&T Pro-Am, which he has won five times. He finished T-51 but, like almost everyone in the field, praised John Bodenhamer’s debut as the USGA’s setup man.
“It was perfect,” he said after finishing his Saturday round with a triple-bogey 8 to shoot 75 and make it completely impossible for him to finish the career Grand Slam. “Really, just perfect. The USGA made sure the players were the story, not the golf course.”
And so, in typical Mickelson fashion, he became the player who, without contending, made himself the poster boy for the USGA’s performance. At Shinnecock, it was Mickelson acting like a spoiled kid and hitting a moving golf ball on No. 13 on Saturday, that became the headline for all those critical of Mike Davis’s setup. At Pebble Beach, it was Mickelson, after another brutal Saturday, graciously and eloquently telling the world that the USGA got it right.
The feeling going into the week was that if the USGA couldn’t get Pebble Beach right, perhaps it shouldn’t even bother showing up at Winged Foot next year. Certainly the relatively mild weather conditions helped, although the weekend afternoons were both chilly and breezy. The course penalized mistakes (ask Woods and Mickelson) but rewarded brilliance—see Woodland, Koepka and others in the top 10.
That’s what you want a U.S. Open course to do. Some purists, who like to see players losing their minds during an Open, might grumble about 31 players finishing under par, but no one playing—or watching—could reasonably claim Pebble Beach was too easy. Fair—yes. Gettable—yes, if you played superbly. Unfair hole locations? Didn’t see any. Even the notorious 14th green provided the turning point of the championship and it wasn’t with someone making double bogey.
It was Woodland’s second shot at 14, a 3-wood he hit at the urging of caddie Brennan Little that allowed him to stretch his tenuous one-shot lead over Koepka to a breathing-room two-shot lead.
Little’s role in this victory shouldn’t be overlooked. He was on the bag for pal and fellow-Canadian Mike Weir when Weir won the 2003 Masters and was a very good player himself once upon a time, competing on the college team at New Mexico State.
One doesn’t have to be a good player to be a good caddie (Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson’s legendary caddie never had a single-digit handicap), but there are moments when it can be helpful. Little was convinced Woodland could hit his 3-wood over the front-left bunker that captures and often swallows players golf balls and their chances to win. Woodland went along, flew the bunker and the ball landed just left of the green in very playable rough. From there, Woodland chipped to three feet, drilled the putt and, just like that, he wasn’t feeling Koepka’s breath on the back of his neck.
Solid irons off the tees at 15 and 16 led to routine pars, and Woodland stepped to the 17th tee with the two-shot lead still intact while Koepka was going up 18.
His 5-iron faded right and, in a flash, a Woodland bogey and a Koepka birdie at 18 weren’t out of the question and the two-year-old USGA two-hole playoff format was suddenly potentially in play for the first time.
Not for long. Woodland opted not to putt and nailed the wedge shot he’ll see in his dreams for the rest of his life. Up ahead, Koepka, after hitting 3-wood off the tee, got caught between clubs and his 3-iron bounced over the green. From there, he chipped to nine feet, and his birdie putt dove right at the last possible second.
That meant Woodland could take a victory stroll up 18—hitting three iron shots to 30 feet, meaning he could three-putt and still win. He only needed one.
If he had known he was going to make the putt, Woodland might have let Justin Rose putt first. When Woodland’s putt went in, everyone had to wait a couple of minutes for Rose to finish his difficult day, one that left him tied for third.
That, however, is an absolute nit-pick. This was as close to a perfect U.S. Open as one could hope for: the golf course was wonderful; the set-up was almost perfect; there was plenty of drama and a worthy winner holding off the world’s best player.
No doubt some would have liked to have seen Mickelson finish off his Slam or Woods contend—“drano!” And a Koepka three-peat would have been truly historic. But Woodland was an absolutely deserving winner. Until now, he’s been known as arguably the only player on the PGA Tour who can easily dunk a basketball and, without question, the only one to play in a game at Kansas’s storied Allen Fieldhouse.
That night turned out to be a turning point in his life. As a Washburn University freshman, Woodland was asked to guard the Jayhawks Kirk Hinrich, who went on to play in the NBA for 13 years. “He was at another level,” Woodland said. “I knew that night I had to find something else.”
He did. And now, he is very much part of golf’s pantheon because he’s a U.S. Open champion.
Woodland has said in the past that the thing he misses most about basketball is being part of a team. That’s why he’s always yearned to play in the Ryder Cup. No doubt, he will get that chance now.
He certainly earned it this past weekend.