KAPALUA, Hawaii – Gary Woodland is unlike most players at Kapalua. He is one of the most athletic figures in golf, certainly among the most powerful. And considering that he didn’t start playing serious golf until college, he’s not even close to reaching his potential.
But for someone looking for a little more consistency, his 2012 season begins with significant change.
Woodland decided to hire a new agent, which in turn wound up costing him a coach.
He left Hambric Sports, where he was represented by Blake Smith, and signed a deal with Mark Steinberg at Excel Sports Management. And then longtime coach Randy Smith – the father of his old agent – decided to part ways with Woodland.
Woodland starts his new season Friday at the Tournament of Champions, one of 28 winners in the field, and then will have two weeks off to search for a new coach.
“I was lucky to work with Randy for six years. I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” said Woodland, who won his first PGA Tour title last year in the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook. “Things happen. He’s got to do what’s best for him and his family. I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”
And so Woodland moves on, hopeful of showing how good he can become, and that he’s more than just a Kansas kid who can mash it.
His rookie season in 2010 was cut short by a torn labrum in his right shoulder that required surgery. In his first full season, he won his first PGA Tour event, made the cut in every major, and built up even more confidence late in the year when he teamed with Matt Kuchar in the World Cup for the first American victory in a decade.
“I am so far ahead of where I was last year,” Woodland said.
In some respects, he has some catching up to do. Unlike most players who gravitated to golf early in life, Woodland spent his summers in Kansas playing a little golf, a little basketball and a lot of baseball. His father suggested he not spread himself so thin, and coming off a long summer of playing shortstop, Woodland settled on basketball and golf.
And then there was one.
He realized his dream of playing basketball might be a stretch after one season at Division II Washburn, and he returned to a standing offer from the Kansas golf coach to play for the Jayhawks.
Smith recalls the first time he saw Woodland at Kansas.
“Muscle beach,” he said. “Strong kid.”
For Woodland, golf was always about power.
“I tried to hit it as far as I could. That was fun,” Woodland said. “I played other sports, so when I played golf, I wanted to have fun. And hitting it far is fun.”
His strength comes from his lower body, powerful calves and thighs that allow him to keep his balance no matter how hard he swings. Woodland figures baseball helped, too, teaching him to transfer weight in his attempt to hit home runs.
He was fifth on the PGA Tour in driving distance last year at 310.5 yards, and that was without hitting driver as much as he would like. That’s one thing he wants to change this year.
When he spent time with Smith at Royal Oaks in Dallas during the offseason, Woodland said the emphasis was on two clubs – the driver and the wedge. Much like Dustin Johnson, he needs to improve his distance control with a wedge to take advantage of his sheer power.
What makes Woodland excited is a trip to the Titleist test facility in California in the fall, where he was able to find the right shaft that helped him pick up an extra 15 yards off the tee.
“This driver is straighter and longer. It’s huge,” Woodland said, and “huge” is not a word he uses lightly. “That (fairway) bunker on No. 8 at Augusta won’t be in play.”
He decided not to use it at the World Cup, though he was plenty long. Woodland still talks about the final hole at Mission Hills in China, when 3-wood was the smart play off the tee because of a bunker that was 300 yards away, with lava and water down the right side. They were two shots ahead in alternate shot, and the Germans had a birdie putt on the 17th hole.
Kuchar told him to hit driver on No. 18 if the Germans made birdie, and if not, Woodland could hit whatever he wanted. The Germans missed, Woodland reached for the 3-wood and Kuchar told him, “You’re hitting driver.”
“I had to hit the perfect shot,” Woodland said. “It was the best swing I made.”
Kuchar still laughs at about that moment, but there was a reason he wanted Woodland to hit driver. “I said to him, ‘Let me hit a 6-iron instead of a 4-iron, please,’” Kuchar recalled.
As for his pick as a partner?
“Pretty darned good pick, wasn’t it?” Kuchar said. “He’s a fantastic talent. You’re going to see a lot of Gary in years to come.”
Woodland’s plan is interesting.
It sounds like he is cut out of the bomb-and-gouge mold, though Woodland is hesitant to hit driver if he’s not hitting it where he’s aiming. If he can get that sorted out, and dial in his wedge game, he figures he will have a big advantage. That would leave him a lot of shots from the 100- to 120-yard range.
“We have that shot more than anybody else,” Woodland said. “If we can drive it in play and hit good wedges, we’re going to be pretty good. Guys get up-and-down from there 70 percent of the time. If we get up-and-down 50 percent of the time, but we’re hitting twice as many wedges, we’re still going to be ahead.”
That could be the perfect recipe for Kapalua, with massive fairways on a Plantation course cut out of the side of a mountain. This course was built for power, though other big hitters who showed up for the Tournament of Champions the first time haven’t always succeeded. It still requires knowing the slopes and the grain on the firm greens.
Besides, Woodland knows he has work to do. Asked for the deficiency in his game, he said, “Everything.” He also said his par-5 scoring was well below what it needs to be, and he needs to drive and putt more consistently.
He wants to be known for more than power, though Woodland knows that makes him different.
“If I’m hitting 3-wood and everyone else is hitting driver, it’s a level playing field,” he said. “If I’m hitting driver straight, then I think I’m playing at a different level than everybody else.”