17 June 2019: Gary Woodland no longer has to answer questions about an inability to close or win a major championship.
Entering Sunday’s final round of the 119th U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links, the 35-year-old from Topeka, Kan., was 0-for-7 when holding a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, and he had never finished better than a tie for 23rd in eight previous U.S. Opens.
That’s now all in the past.
Woodland holed a 30-foot birdie putt on Pebble Beach’s iconic par-5 closing hole to punctuate a three-stroke victory over two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka, who was trying to become just the second player to win three consecutive U.S. Opens.
By carding a 2-under-par 69, Woodland became the fourth player to claim the U.S. Open title with four sub-70 rounds. He’s also the second Open winner at Pebble Beach to post a double-digit under-par score (13-under 271), joining Tiger Woods (12-under 272) who won the 2000 championship by a record 15 strokes.
Q. I just wonder, obviously it’s a long time ago, but looking back to the moment you went with golf over basketball, how often have you thought about that over time? Just that moment, just talk about that a little bit?
GARY WOODLAND: I mean, the moment really got forced on me. I went to school, to Washburn to play basketball, and I always believed if basketball didn’t work out I could fall back on golf.
And our first game we played Kansas at the University of Kansas. They were ranked No. 1 in Division I, and we were ranked No. 2 in Division II. And that decision got forced on me really quickly. I was guarding Curt Hinrich, and, like, okay, I need to find something else, because this ain’t gonna work. And that was my first game in college. I was a two-time State champion, All-State, blah, blah, blah, but that was a different level.
And so when I transitioned to golf the next year, that was the first time in my life I’d ever focused solely on golf. It took me a little bit, but I got out here a year after school on the PGA TOUR in 2009. It’s 11 years later now being out here. I don’t think my game is where it needs to be, but it’s getting there. I’m becoming a more complete player, I have more shots. I can rely more on my putting, rely on my short game. Things I couldn’t do even last year.
We put a lot of work in this year in becoming a more complete player. I can play different golf courses. People probably growing up said U.S. Open wouldn’t suit me, because I’m a long hitter, I’m a bomber. Coming to Pebble Beach, on top of that, it’s a shorter golf course. And went out and proved, I think to everybody else, what I always believed, that I’m pretty good.
Q. When Brooks won the PGA at Bellerive and outlasted Tiger, he later said he enjoyed stopping history. What was it like when you stopped his history and made your own history?
GARY WOODLAND: Yeah, it was nice. Obviously Brooks got off to a great start. And you knew he was going to come out. The conditions, the wind was down a little bit early in the round. You could play more aggressive. The first couple of holes he could attack, and he did that.
It was nice for me to make that birdie on 2 to give myself confidence to kind of slow down everything. And obviously executing the birdie on 3, as well. But Brooks, he’s unbelievable. He lives for this moment. And obviously what he’s done the last couple of years is phenomenal.
So it was nice. I told him when I got done he needs to slow down a little bit. All day he was knocking on the door. I was proud of myself to stay in my moment and control myself and not get too worried about what he was doing.
Q. By not focusing solely on golf until college, there are people you’re playing out here that are turning pro when you were just focusing on golf. What was that like for you? Did you feel behind the eight ball when you were seeing all these 20-something players come and have their runs? Did you ever get discouraged thinking that somehow time was running out on you?
GARY WOODLAND: I think from a golf standpoint I’ve always been a little behind just from what you’re talking about, guys that have grown up doing this their whole life. But from a competitive standpoint, I don’t think I was behind at all. I competed all my life at every sport and every level. It was just learning how to play golf. It was learning to complete my game, to get that short game, to get that putting, to drive the golf ball straighter. And that was the big deal.
From a golf standpoint, I was probably a little behind, and that gets frustrating at some point, because my whole life I’ve been able to compete and win at everything I’ve done, and I haven’t been able to do that as much as I’d like to in golf. It’s taken a while, but I think we’re trending in the right direction.
Q. Just wonder what are the things you’re going to be most proud of when you look back on this week?
GARY WOODLAND: I think from a mental standpoint I was as good as I’ve ever been. I never let myself get ahead of myself. I never thought about what would happen if I won, what comes with it. I wanted to execute every shot. I wanted to stay in the moment. I wanted to stay within myself.
I knew I was playing good going in, but I’ve been playing good going into a lot of tournaments before and haven’t had the results I’d like. I was proud of myself to stay in it, to slow down a little bit, to slow my thinking down and really focus on what I was doing and not let my mind wander at all.
Q. What was maybe the shot you were most proud of or happy with, the 3-wood at 14 or the chip at 17?
GARY WOODLAND: The 3-wood at 14 was, I think, what gave me the confidence to even execute the shot on 17. There’s a lot that could have gone left, I hit that chip in the practice rounds, left is not good, right’s out of bounds. Long is not ideal. And the bunker speaks for itself.
So to execute that shot under the pressure, under the situation, that shot gave me the confidence. Really going in I felt better after hitting that shot on the golf course today than I had in a long, long time.
Q. That was a pretty impactful bear hug you and your dad had at the end, and I wonder if you could characterize your relationship with your dad on Father’s Day? He said he couldn’t talk to you the last couple of days because it was like a no-hitter, he didn’t want to disturb you.
GARY WOODLAND: Yeah, my dad, I wouldn’t be where I am without my dad. My dad worked nights growing up. Growing up I had somebody to shoot baskets with, whatever we did I had somebody to do that with. It took me a while once I got older because my dad always coached me. Golf was the only sport he didn’t coach me in. And my dad never forced me to do anything. But if I did it, if I decided to go play catch or basketball, he was hard on me. You had to do it the right way, if you were going to do it. He never let me win.
I remember the first time I beat him in golf I was 13. I don’t know if I beat him in basketball until I was 14 or 15. He was bigger than me and never let me win. It was hard when I got older of him not coaching me anymore to now the relationship where we can be best friends. And I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dad and the way he treated me and the way he was hard on me. And that’s something that I look forward to doing with my son.
Q. Obviously to the casual golf fan your name does not rank up there with Tiger or Brooks or some others. What would you like the casual golf fan, though, to know about you, about your journey, about your journey to get to this point? You’ve been in this game since 2007. I’m sure there’s been some ups and downs. What would you like people to know about you and what allowed you to get to this point?
GARY WOODLAND: I’ve just always believed in myself. No matter what I’ve done, from when I was a young kid, I always believed I would be successful. I believed I would play professional sports. I always believed I would be in this moment.
And the question about if I ever dreamed of making the putt on the last hole of a U.S. Open when I was a kid, no, I didn’t, but I hit a lot of game-winning shots on the basketball court when I was a kid. And that’s what I did. I’ve always believed in myself. And it’s nice when you do that, and you surround yourself with great people, good things happen.
Q. I know your wife and son aren’t here today. How did you celebrate Father’s Day this morning?
GARY WOODLAND: I got up and FaceTimed with my son and wife. It’s hard not being with them. I look forward to getting back. We’re expecting identical twin girls here in the next couple of months. So she’s at home. I just FaceTimed with her on the way up here. She was awake. She goes to bed at 8:00 every night. I told her it was more surprising that she was awake than I was that I won today.
So it’s special. I mean, I’ve been with my wife for a long time, and our son is turns two next week, which is really cool. We’re excited about having a little birthday party for him next week. I’m excited to get home and see them.
Q. You said that yesterday that if you felt a lot of tension today one of the nice things is there’s a lot of great views to look at out on this golf course. Nicklaus has talked recently about when he felt tension on the final day that he would look at the galleries to settle himself down. Is there a moment today where the anxiety was really intense and you had to try to force yourself to settle down?
GARY WOODLAND: Not as much settle down but still trying to take in everything. I didn’t really look at the crowd too much. They were very vocal. They were big. The energy was phenomenal in the last group. You could hear what Brooks was doing up ahead. I could see what Rosie was doing. When you get on those holes, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, you come back on 17, I was just trying to take in the beauty of the whole moment. I think that takes some ease out of, kind of puts things in perspective real quick, takes my mind off some things, and then you can get back to work. I enjoyed the moment more than anything.
Q. You had a lot of time to think walking up 14 to that second shot, walking down 17 to that chip shot. How do you keep your mind steady? What do you use to keep yourself from getting too far ahead of yourself?
GARY WOODLAND: Breathing is a big deal. Taking an extra breath. My caddie and I talked a lot today, which is a good thing. Talked about other sports, talked about other things, getting your mind off things.
The shot on 14 was tough. I heard the crowd cheer. But I couldn’t see that. It’s a blind shot. I didn’t know where the ball ended up. It couldn’t have been in a better shot.
17 I knew where I was because, like I said, I had the shot earlier in the week. I didn’t know what Brooks was doing. I could see him on the green, I could see him putting, I didn’t know if it was for eagle or birdie. I saw that he missed it and I still didn’t know what it was for until after I hit the chip shot. When I was hitting that shot, I was trying to get it past the hole and give myself a chance to get 4 in the worst case.
Q. I know you’ve taken buddies trips to Pebble Beach with your friends. Did you ever let your mind wander when you were doing the buddy trips to winning something here, and did that help you be more comfortable?
GARY WOODLAND: It definitely helped me be more comfortable. I tried to put myself back into that situation a little bit to get out of the moment, I guess, the big picture, what was going on this week. But I love Pebble Beach. I haven’t played the AT&T a lot. I struggled on some of the other golf courses, but I found a way to play well here at Pebble.
I’ve enjoyed — it sets up well for my eye. When I hit driver, I think it’s a huge advantage. And it allows me to really be aggressive with my iron play. And I’ve enjoyed — I started to love poa annua greens, I struggled on the greens, and I put in a lot of work to start to really like poa annua greens, and that’s what paid off this week.
Q. What was the details of that trip?
GARY WOODLAND: It was three years ago, I believe. It was some guy — some insurance guys. Where I come from, there’s a lot of insurance companies. They were coming out on a trip, and I tagged along with them. They had clients here, and I played some golf with their clients. When we played Pebble, it was three of my best friends, and we went out and had a lot of fun. They played scramble, me and my other buddies shamble. I hit driver on almost every hole, which was different, but I had a lot of fun, put it that way.
Q. Just curious what’s going through your mind when you see Brooks’ name kind of creeping up the leaderboard on you and how difficult that is to maybe block out, even what he was doing on the day and so forth?
GARY WOODLAND: Yeah, I never thought about it, to be honest with you. I had Justin Rose, who obviously is a top whatever player in the world, 1, 2 or 3, I don’t know what he is, but I was watching him do everything he was doing today, too. You knew Brooks was going to make a run. Like I said, I saw he made birdie on 1. I heard the roars when he made birdie on 3, I think it was.
But I just tried to stay within myself. I knew if I played well, Brooks was four shots back, I believe. I knew if I shot a couple under, he’d have to do something really, really special. I also thought that at Maui last year or this year when I had a three-shot lead and shot 5-under and got beat.
But I told myself if I can continue doing that, and I did that playing with Rory McIlroy that day, and that was a big round for me. If I can stick to myself, I can put pressure on them instead of them putting pressure on me. No matter what he did, I still had those holes to make birdie, and that’s what I was telling myself.
Q. Video with you and Amy earlier went pretty viral. I guess she was watching you today saying: You got this, you got this.
GARY WOODLAND: I said that a lot today, too.
Q. What has she meant to you?
GARY WOODLAND: She’s meant everything for me from a mental standpoint. The world needs more of her in it. Her attitude, her love for life, love for the game and her positive energy is so contagious. And I’ve had the pleasure to continue to speak with her. She sent me a nice video when I got sick and had to pull out of Wells Fargo. She sent me an amazing birthday video, singing happy birthday to me. She’s a special girl, special parents, and it’s nice to call her a friend.
Q. That giant trophy is in the way, so you can’t see me. I said the words “have fun” to you before your round. What is it, from the challenge standpoint, to be able to try to do that throughout, and how much did pressure come into play, or were you pretty much able to push it aside throughout?
GARY WOODLAND: I think the big deal is to enjoy the pressure. Obviously it’s an uncomfortable situation leading in a major championship after 36 holes, after 54 holes. But I kept telling myself, even this morning, to enjoy this moment. Enjoy the pressure. Enjoy the stress. Enjoy being uncomfortable. And don’t shy away from it, embrace it.
And that’s what I really tried to do, is embrace that pressure all day. And I think that helped me stay a little more calm.
Q. You talked about your relationship with your dad, and obviously today on Father’s Day, how significant is that? Given the emotional experience you’ve had as a dad, going through two years ago, and Jackson’s birth and being pregnant again, can you give us the significance of winning this on this day?
GARY WOODLAND: Yeah, it’s special. Like I said, I wouldn’t be here without my dad. And I probably didn’t realize how special it all was until I became a father. And obviously we had our struggles, and it’s been documented, the losses that we’ve suffered. We lost a couple last year, as well. And it was tough. We thought we were done, and the identical twin girls were a surprise.
Being a father now puts life in perspective. My whole life it’s all been about trying to win. And now I’m trying to make a better life for my son than I’ve had. It’s been a process. But today is so special from that standpoint that being a father and hopefully some day he can even see this and realize that anything is possible.
Q. Back to Amy. I was talking to her mother earlier today, and said she’s never seen Amy so glued to a golf broadcast and kept talking about how you’re her hero. What kind of inspiration do you hope to provide to your kids and kids like Amy that are watching you?
GARY WOODLAND: Really the only thing you can control — and I said this yesterday. The only thing I can control today is my attitude. My caddie told me, when I got done, it’s the best he’s ever seen my attitude all week. I just tried to control that because that’s really all you can control.
And Amy’s attitude is phenomenal. That’s something I want to teach my kids, is you have to — positive energy is contagious. And life’s not always going to be bells and whistles. There are going to be bad things in your life, a lot of ups and downs, but the only thing you can control is your attitude. And if you do that, in the end good things will happen. I said — Amy told me a million times when we were on this whole I’ve got this, I’ve got this, and I told myself that a million times today, I’ve got this.
Q. People keep asking about Amy. That putt went viral. Do you think your putt on 18 will get more hits than her putt got?
GARY WOODLAND: I doubt it. I doubt it. I was more nervous for her putt than I was for my putt, I can tell you that. The bunker shot she hit, too, was amazing. I wanted to get it out of the bunker for her, and she’s like, no, I’ve got this. The putt on 18 was nice. Obviously I was trying to get down there close. To go in was amazing. I was a little excited. I know Tiger shot 12-under in 2000. To finish 13-under was pretty cool.
Q. The chip on 17, which wedge was it, and were you considering any other possibilities of what to do with it?
GARY WOODLAND: Yeah, it was 64-degree wedge. And I clipped it perfectly. You know, when I first started working — when I started to transition into golf, I started working with Randy Smith, 2005, I believe, and the short game was really what was really bad, to be honest with you.
And so my whole deal was I had to hit chips off putting greens all the time, and there were some times where superintendents weren’t a huge fan of me. But I’ve hit a lot of chip shots off putting greens, and I credit that to Randy Smith.
I’ve got more confident over the years. But I was fortunate enough to have that shot earlier in the week and execute it the exact same way.
Q. You mentioned having a good attitude. At least on TV we saw three times, where you saw the middle of a sand-filled divot, for an amateur hacker that seems difficult. But you made birdie on two of those holes. How did you turn the negative into a positive?
GARY WOODLAND: My caddie said that on the third one on 16. I don’t remember the last time we’ve had three sand-filled divots, let alone three in one week. There’s nothing you can do about that. I obviously executed the shots how I wanted to off the tee boxes to get in the fairway. And you get up there, and fortunately they weren’t very deep. And the balls were in the middle, which gave me access to the back of the golf ball.
So for the most part Pete Cowen and I worked on that shot, which I don’t think I’ve ever had, but we had worked on that shot lately, and I tried to get more steep with it. But fortunately you practice for situations like that, and fortunately I’ve done that.
Q. I think Pete’s actually on a plane right now so you can afford to be honest. Just how influential has he been? And you mentioned early on, how much more do you think he can help you to become?
GARY WOODLAND: Pete’s been amazing for me. I worked with Butch for a long time. Butch is the one that recommended me to go to Pete a year and a half ago for the short game. When Butch decided to retire, it was an easy transition for me to full swing everything with Pete.
Pete to me is like a coach. He’s not really a teacher, he’s a coach. He tells you this is the game plan, this is what we’re going to do, and then it’s up to me to go out and do it.
But like Butch, he knows what to say and when to say it. He sent me an unbelievable text this morning that had nothing to do with my golf swing or technique. He said: Every man dies, but not every man lives, and you live for this moment.
So that — I thought about that a lot today. He’s been great for me. But I think we’re only on the tip of the iceberg. We were working on short game shots, he’s like, no, I don’t think you can execute that under pressure. Let’s go back and do it this way, let’s simplify things. That’s huge having him here. I didn’t hit it well on Thursday. I went straight to the range, and we worked for a long time to figure it out. And that’s nice to have him here under huge moments and guided me along the way. It’s a work in progress. We’ve only been full swing since December. I’m hitting as good as I ever have.
Q. You mentioned yesterday about your self-diagnosis of your swing, and the chip on 17 and hitting out of the divots, were you surprised the things you practiced came to fruition so readily?
GARY WOODLAND: Not surprised, but I enjoy that. I enjoy that when I get that shot I’ve executed it. I think sometimes you don’t practice those situations and you get up there and you get a little uncomfortable and you can get angry that I’m in a sand-filled divot.
Practicing that kind of gives me a little edge, I think, from the standpoint I know how to execute this. I know I can do this. And that’s what — Pete has helped me, Phil Kenyon has helped me, put me in situations for the moment. And fortunately I didn’t have a shot this week that I hadn’t practiced, and that’s pretty good.
Q. Not to give away every secret, but you said you made some superintendents a little upset. I don’t think the average guy out there is even allowed to try that. What’s the key to it?
GARY WOODLAND: The key is to get the heel off the ground. I really get toe down with the edge of the wedge. You don’t want that heel to grab at all. I’m almost hitting off the toe. I get really close to it and try to get the leading edge to come in first. I want to clip the back of the ball solidly. The key for me is get the toe down, get a little closer to it and pick it off the ground.
Q. How long were you practicing nowadays?
GARY WOODLAND: For what?
Q. Practicing, how long have you been practicing every day in the morning?
GARY WOODLAND: Yeah, I don’t take many days off. Outside of being a dad, my only hobby is golf. And I always feel if I’m taking a day off, somebody is getting better and I’m not. So I don’t like to take time off. I like to work. I’ve got a lot more quality in my work than quantity over time. I used to practice a lot. And I don’t know if I got a lot out of it.
Now I get more out of my practice sessions. Every warmup shot, everything I hit has a purpose to it. I have the same routine before a round since 2007, and Pete Cowen changed it the week after — the week of the PGA. We changed my routine, the way I warm up. I hit certain shots. And every shot I have today I warmed up, I hit it on the range. And that’s what the key is. And that’s how I practice at home, as well.
Q. We all know how state title games can make kids nervous. You hit 14 of 15 free throws in one of them. Is there a line that you can draw, you always had good nerves, adrenaline was more of a problem before?
GARY WOODLAND: You know, I shot free throws really well. I shot 90 percent. I did it in college, as well. And I counted in my head. And that’s what I do when I hit golf shots, on putts, I count in my head, one, two, three, and I go after three. That calms me down.
Steinberg called me last night and said: I want you to hit 30 free throws in a row tomorrow. Counting blocks out the situation, it blocks out the outside noise. So I rely on trying to transition that free-throw shooting into my golf shot every time I hit.