PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — With nerve, strength, touch and everything else he needed in the clutch, Gary Woodland essentially said, “I’ve got this.” In the end, he got the U.S. Open trophy and a whole new life as a major champion.
Woodland completed his self-reinvention from a small-college basketball player to a big-time golfer by finishing 13 under par at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He boldly hit the par-5 14th green in two and birdied, chipped close from the front of the green on the par-3 17th to make par, then topped it off with a birdie on the par-5 18th for a three-shot win over two-time champion Brooks Koepka.
“No matter what I’ve done from when I was a young kid, I’ve always believed I’d be successful,” Woodland said. “I always believed I’d play professional sports. I didn’t know what sport that would be, but I always believed I would be in this moment.”
It nearly was another epic moment for Koepka, who fell just short of becoming the first American golfer to win three consecutive U.S. Opens and only the second player ever, following Willie Anderson in 1905.
“I didn’t really think about it until I was done on 18 and realized how close I actually was to kind of, I guess, not making history, but kind of tying it, I guess you could say,” Koepka said. “I don’t think anybody in the world played as well as Gary did this weekend. Gary played a hell of a round. To finish it out like that, that was cool.”
In a way, Woodland out-Koepka’d Koepka, drilling a 263-yard 3-wood onto the green on 14 to regain momentum over his fellow power hitter, the one who has won four major titles in the past two years, including the PGA last month at Bethpage. “The idea,” Woodland said, “was to play to win.”
Woodland, 35, of Topeka, Kansas, had won three tournaments but never had been close to a major before. His vastly improved short game shone this week, proving that he has plenty of skill. He shot 2-under-par 69, pulling away from playing companion and friend Justin Rose (74), who tied Woodland on the first hole but finished six strokes back. Koepka shot 68.
The winner received a hug from his dad just off the 18th green on Father’s Day. “We’re best friends,” said the champion, noting that his own son was home in Florida with Woodland’s wife, who is pregnant with twins.
Earlier this year, Woodland said his most exciting moment on a golf course occurred during a practice round for the Phoenix Open. That was when, as the defending champion doing a promotion with the Special Olympics, he invited Amy Bockerstette, a 20-year-old woman with Down syndrome, to hit a shot.
To Woodland’s delight, she hit a clean shot out of a bunker. Finally, after telling herself, “I got this,” she made the par putt. Woodland raised his hands in triumph and told her, with words captured in a video gone viral, “You’re our hero.”
On Saturday evening, with Woodland leading the U.S. Open by two strokes, the Twitter account of Amy Bockerstette featured this post: “You’ve got this @GaryWoodland!”
What Woodland always has had was a gift for competition. He loved basketball so much that he overcame being hit in the trachea during a high school game. After being hauled off on a stretcher, he came back with a 20-plus-point game three nights later. He tried Division II ball at Washburn but was small and skinny. He switched to golf and Kansas.
On Sunday, the competitor in him came out every time he needed it to. “I wanted to execute every shot, I wanted to stay in the moment. I was proud of myself,” he said.
With the Open on the line, he hit the most delicate shot imaginable, a long pitch from the green (he didn’t have a direct line for a putt) on the 17th hole and nearly holed it. He saved par and protected his two-stroke lead right after Koepka had missed his birdie putt on 18.
“I went out and proved to everybody else what I’ve always believed, which is that I’m pretty good,'' Woodland said. "I don’t think I’ve got my game to where it needs to be, but it’s getting there.”
He’s got this: The U.S. Open trophy and new stature as someone at the top of his game.