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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Gary Woodland inspired by golfer with Down Syndrome 

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 14: Gary Woodland

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 14: Gary Woodland of the United States reacts after a par-saving putt on the eighth hole during the second round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 14, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) Photo Credit: Getty Images/Andrew Redington

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — There was one  soaring, inspiring, spirit-lifting moment in professional golf this year and, with all due respect to the player who won the green jacket, it was not in Augusta on the second Sunday in April.

It occurred in the last week of January at TPC Scottsdale during a round that didn’t count. It was performed by someone who was not even a pro. It still lives on in a viral video, that most stirring par of the season. The golfer was Amy Bockerstette, 20, a Phoenix area resident who has Down Syndrome.

She was invited to take a swing during a Waste Management Phoenix Open practice round by Gary Woodland, the tournament’s defending champion. “She didn’t know she was going to play the hole, by the way,” her father, Joe, said on the phone Saturday.

Amy enthusiastically nailed a 117-yard 6-hybrid on the famous and raucous par-3 16th hole. The ball landed in the right bunker and again she took Woodland’s offer to hit it out of there, which she did, after motivating herself with the sort of pep talk that every golfer needs: “I got this.” Then she made the putt, drawing roars from 20,000 people.

Nobody, not even Amy, was more excited than Woodland. He went from polite host to amused observer to amazed admirer in a matter of minutes. His comments ranged from “That’s awesome!” to “That is so awesome!” to “Amy, it was so awesome to meet you...You are an inspiration…You’re our hero.”

All of which was greatly appreciated by the Bockerstette family. So, before Woodland began the third round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links Saturday with a two-stroke lead, her dad said, “We’re rooting for him, hugely.”

Woodland recorded a video honoring Joe, who was named Father of the Year by Golfweek magazine, which released its story Saturday for Father’s Day. The family went to Florida recently for a tournament in connection with the award and there, Joe said, “Amy was singing his praises.”

Woodland, the 35-year-old pro from Topeka, Kansas has a reputation for being one of the good guys on tour. That was burnished by the joy he showed on No. 16 at TPC that day. He later told the Palm Beach Post, the paper near his new home in Florida, "It was just so cool and special at the time. I've learned so much from her on a positive level and how to live my life from an emotional standpoint.

“The positive energy she gives herself was contagious because I was as excited as I've ever been on a golf course,” he said. “I've had grown men come up to me crying and talking about it. I've never had anything like that in my life."

Joe Bockerstette said the event was organized by the Special Olympics, in which Amy has competed. “I don’t think people knew what to expect,” he said, adding that there was good reason his daughter wasn’t nervous. She is a confident and accomplished golfer, having earned an athletic scholarship to play for the team at Paradise Valley Community College.

Her dad caddied for her in most of her matches. “That’s the biggest thrill you can have as a father, to be right down there in the arena with your daughter,” he said Saturday, adding that she placed 19 of the 25 people in her community college league and is shooting to qualify for the national championships next season.

Nothing will top the thrill of having the opportunity to blow kisses to 20,000 fans, a chance for which the family is grateful to Woodland.

Before the round in which their new friend teed off in the last group, leading the U.S. Open, Joe said, “Tell Gary he’s got this.”

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