PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland has transformed himself from a small-college basketball player to big-time golfer, from being a skinny kid to a muscular power player, from a poor putter to recently a short-game specialist. Now, he has the chance for the greatest personal migration of all.
On Sunday at the U.S. Open, he can make the quantum leap from solid professional to major champion.
With a solid putting performance, Woodland shot 2-under-par 69 in the third round and finished the day 11 under. He is one stroke ahead of Justin Rose, Woodland’s friend and the 2013 U.S. Open winner with whom he will play for a second consecutive day.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. Since I started walking, I’ve played sports. I’ve competed, I know how to win. Even if I haven’t done it as much as I’d like I know what it takes to win,” Woodland said after a third consecutive round without a back-nine birdie, this time featuring dramatic par saves on 12 and 14.
Rose shot 68 on another good day for scoring in the tournament that usually does not yield one double-digit under-par mark, let alone two. All of the top eight players on the leader board broke par Saturday. Among those is Brooks Koepka, the reigning two-time U.S. Open champion who shot 68 and is tied for third at 7 under with Louis Oosthuizen and Chez Reavie.
Despite all that firepower, the competition will focus first on the final twosome. Woodland and Rose have the same management, live near each other in Florida and sometimes travel together. When Woodland was trying out for the tour, Rose gave advice that helped.
Being a shot behind, Rose said, “Gives me the freedom to feel like I’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose. I’m not chasing Gary, really, we’re so close. Overall, I couldn’t be in a bette spot.”
The feeling in the air was like that of a football Saturday, cloudy and cool. At the same time, the usually fitful seaside winds were calm enough to make the scoring seem like what you would see in the PGA Tour’s relaxed fall season. Maybe the pressure of Sunday will slow everyone in a way that the setup and conditions have not.
Woodland, 35, overcame a shank from a shaggy bunker lip on the par-3 12, sending his ball across the green. But he made the chip for par. Two holes later, he hit a poor drive on a par 5 and never really recovered, but made a long uphill par putt. Each time, Rose kept pace with a birdie. The latter cut a two-stroke deficit in half with a birdie on No. 18.
The leader would not have envisioned himself with this kind of opportunity when he was a teenager. He was a basketball phenom at Shawnee Heights High School in Topeka, dreaming of being a Division I shooting guard. Once he was hospitalized while taking a charge during a Tuesday game then showed toughness to come back Friday with a 20-plus point game.
Nonetheless, big-time coaches saw him as too small and skinny, so he enrolled at Division II Washburn University. One exhibition game into his freshman season, he decided basketball just wasn’t his sport. He was overmatched against his favorite school, the University of Kansas.
So, he switched to golf and took the golf scholarship that Kansas had offered earlier. Woodland, like Koepka, worked out relentlessly and transformed himself into a power player on tour.
“I have more shots now,” he said. “That frees me up a little bit. I have a short game now that I can rely on, I don’t have to rely so much on the ball-striking. This is a course where I don’t have to pound a lot of drivers. It’s nice to be where I’m at right now. I’m looking forward to going out and doing one more day.”
In one more day, he might be able to transform himself into a major champion.