Woodland searches for mix of power and strategy

By Jason SobelMarch 11, 2014, 5:50 pm

Come one, come all! Step right up and don’t be shy! It’s the most amazingest, most enthrallingest, most spine-tinglingest, bone-chillingest long ball hitter in all the golfing land! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, get ready for the greatest show on …

Gary Woodland is not a circus freak. He wishes you’d understand this. Yes, he can hit the golf ball so far that you wouldn’t believe your eyes, even if they could follow its flight path without binoculars. And sure, on the rare occasions, maybe once a year, that he actually leans into one and swings full throttle, it sounds like a single firework being launched. And OK, if you lined him up against the game's other great bombers – Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Alvaro Quiros, whomever – he believes he could soar it past 'em with, in circus parlance, the greatest of ease.

“I think I fly it farther than anybody,” he says, more pragmatic admission than presumptuous boast.

But please, everyone: Just stop. If you’re a pro-am partner, stop begging him to show you how deep he can drive it. If you’re a spectator, stop bellyaching when he reaches for an iron on the tee box. If you’re a pundit, stop categorizing him as Iron Byron with biceps.

This is a different Gary Woodland – older, wiser, more strategic.

He’s a few months shy of 30 now, nearly ranked in the world’s top 50, with just one missed cut in the past year. He owns a win and two runner-up finishes since August. He appears ready to bust out in a big way.

And yet, there it is. The gravitational pull of his story, like the gravitational pull that eventually drops his shots out of the sky and back down to earth. We can’t discuss how Woodland learned to overcome just being a long hitter without first telling the Paul Bunyan-esque tales of his prodigious power.

“I’ve always hit it far,” he explains. “When I first started playing golf as a kid, that’s what we did. My buddies and I would go to the range and see who could hit it the farthest. If anyone asked me advice for their kids, I’d tell them to do the same thing, because it’s hard to teach length. I tried to hit the golf ball as far as I could, then I learned how to play golf later.”

Woodland didn’t take his first lesson until his sophomore year of high school, instead splitting more time between baseball and basketball. He’d play 100 baseball games during the summer months in Kansas, honing his skills as a power-hitting shortstop. “I was batting leadoff for our team, because we had some studs,” he says. “We had some guys who matured really young. We were a bunch of guys shaving when we were 12.” When it grew too cold, he turned to hoops. A deadeye shooter from long range, Woodland enrolled at Division II Washburn University as a two-guard on a team where he was the only player under 21.  “From a mental standpoint, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It definitely made me tougher.”

After one year, though, golf beckoned.

He’d signed to play basketball at Washburn during his junior year of high school, but as a senior Woodland won five times, including the state amateur championship, and started thinking he might have a future in the game. He transferred to Kansas University without much fanfare.

“I thought he could be good,” recalls his coach, Ross Randall. “But he didn’t play a whole lot because he was a multi-sport guy. I just kind of wondered about his devotion to the game. Most guys we saw would live, eat and sleep golf.”

Randall quickly learned about Woodland’s devotion, often helping him scrape a path through the snow and ice during the winter months so he could practice putting. It wasn’t on the greens where his star pupil earned his reputation, though. Still the golfer who learned the game by bashing drives with buddies, still the long ball-hitting shortstop, Woodland would overpower courses with his prodigious length.

“There was a time at the Kansas Invitational,” Randall remembers. “It was September and it was getting late in the day. The 17th hole is a par-5, dogleg right. He hit it down the left side of the fairway and there was a pond in front of the green. I think he was 4 under for the round at this point and 7 under for the tournament. I’m in the cart and he says, ‘You think I should go for it? I have 255-260 to clear the pond and I’m 270 to the front edge.’ That’s a long ways to go, it’s getting dark, the lie is really tight. I said, ‘Well, you can make a lot of birdies with a wedge shot, but you’re not going to make birdie from the pond.’ He said, ‘I’m pumped; I really think I can do this.’ He hits it and as soon as he hits it, he yells. The ball lands on the green.

“Later, he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I lied. I had 290. But I knew if I told you that you wouldn’t have let me hit a 3-wood.’ I said, ‘Just don’t ever lie to me again.’”

Consider it Woodland’s version of George Washington and the cherry tree.

“He hit drives that just gave you the wow factor,” says teammate Barrett Martens. “There was a time we were at Stanford and Coach Randall was taking us around the course saying, ‘Tiger did this’ or ‘Tiger hit one here.’ We got to a par 5 and Gary hit it 30 yards past where Tiger had been.”

By the time he’d reached his senior year, after four career victories at Kansas, opposing coaches were telling Randall, “That guy is ready. He looks like he’s going to enjoy making money on the PGA Tour someday.”

Notah Begay and Paige Mackenzie dissect Gary Woodland's powerful swing

It didn’t happen right away. Far from it. Woodland turned pro in 2007, entering mini-tour events each week, but never able to make a cut. The next year, somehow, he successfully made it through Q-School without ever having previously played a PGA Tour event.

“I was athletic and could hit it a long way,” he says, “but I wasn’t ready to be out on the PGA Tour.”

Midway through his rookie season, after just eight made cuts in 18 starts and no finish better than 28th, he finally took time off to rest an ailing shoulder. It took everyone on Woodland’s team – his parents, friends, coach, agent – to convince the ex-hoopster who hoisted jumpers at Washburn with his fingers taped together after an early injury that playing through pain wasn’t doing him any good.

In what he now terms “a blessing in disguise,” the big basher could do nothing but chip and putt for four months. He quickly used up his status via medical extension in 2010, but shot 60 in a Nationwide Tour qualifier, then piled up a few top-25s to retain playing privileges on the developmental circuit. Once again, he cruised through Q-School, this time ready to join the big leagues.

In his second start the next season, he lost the Bob Hope Classic in a playoff to Jhonattan Vegas. After claiming a fifth and a sixth during the next two months, he won the Transitions Championship, the culmination of choosing proficiency over power.

“I got out here in '09,” he said following that win. “I wasn't a very good golfer. I was athletic, but I didn't know what I was doing out here. I got hurt and I had time to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I'm starting to figure that out right now.”

Those words ring true today because they could have been spoken five minutes ago. Injuries to both wrists and a major swing overhaul dislodged Woodland from the up-and-comer radar. While he didn’t descend to the minor leagues again, the process was similar, trying to rebuild from the bottom up.

And so the player who learned the game by swinging hard, who was encouraged by his college coach to use his length as an advantage, who once had a driving distance leader bonus in his contract before removing it for risk of temptation, is now still trying to strike the right balance between blindly bombing the ball and playing to his strength.

“Gary has a high-90s fastball; he’s a big, strong running back or wide receiver with tremendous speed,” analogizes his coach, Claude Harmon III. “He has a strength in distance. I just tried to get him back to hitting golf balls hard when he gets into pressure situations.”

Woodland maintains that these days – unlike his rookie year – he doesn’t even know his driving distance rank. (He’s currently eighth, at 303.1 yards per pop.) That doesn’t mean his Bunyan-esque tales are all a thing of the past.

Take the recent Farmers Insurance Open, for instance. In contention on Sunday afternoon at Torrey Pines, he found the fairway on the monstrous par-5 ninth hole, but still had a country mile between him and the green.

“I was just happy he hit the fairway, because you could only advance it 140 yards out of the rough,” recalls caddie Tony Navarro. “I said, ‘It’s a three-shot hole anyway. We’re 283 to the front and the pin is another 20 on. Might as well get it up there close to the green.’ So he hits 3-wood and flies it onto the green. He just looked at me and kind of snickered. I knew exactly what he was thinking. He says, ‘I guess it wasn’t a three-shot hole today.’ That really opened my eyes to what kind of power he has.”

“We’ve laughed about it ever since,” Woodland says with a smile. “I was just like, ‘You need to tell me I can’t do something a little more often, because I will find a way to do it.”

Despite the overt confidence and an ever-burgeoning results page that features a win at last year’s Reno-Tahoe Open followed by a one-stroke loss at The Barclays and a playoff defeat at the CIMB Classic, Woodland isn’t above seeking help. Not long after struggling on the greens at Kapalua earlier this season, he told Navarro that he wanted to enlist the help of someone who’d been in high-pressure situations before.

It took the caddie less than 30 minutes to think of a name. His former loop – Greg Norman.

Gary Woodland, Greg Norman

One phone call led to a putting tip, and the putting tip led to a day at Norman’s estate in South Florida last month, where he mentored Woodland on everything from technique to focus.

“I see a huge amount of potential in him,” beams Norman, who walked with Woodland during a practice round prior to last week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship. “Anyone with that much power just has to understand how he can harness it and use it. … He’s athletic, strong, balanced, calm-natured – a lot of attributes that will be huge.

“I want Gary to understand how to simplify the game. To me, the most important thing about the game of golf when you play in the upper echelon is, ‘How do you make that minor change from falling into a slide? How do you correct that?’ Some guys get lost because they don’t know how to simplify it. When I was talking to Gary, he got it. Less is more. Keep it simple, stupid. The secret to being consistently good is understanding the game to such a fine-tuned level.”

The takeaway has been nothing but positive.

“I’ve put myself in contention quite a bit lately, but haven’t finished the way I’ve wanted to,” Woodland confesses. “He thought if we simplified things and made it so where I understand it, it would help me continue to get better and win multiple times. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.”

“What an amazing day for a guy like Gary,” agrees Harmon, whose father, Butch, worked with Norman. “It’s like he’s a superhero and invites you to the Batcave.”

For years, Woodland has enjoyed sort of a cult superhero status of his own. He was the guy who can swing maybe 85-90 percent and still fly it past his main competition. And for years, he cared about such things. Woodland took pride in his ability to move the ball, but often in lieu of better strategy.

He now contends that he’d rather poke every drive 280 yards and hole one more putt each round, reversing the inclination from early in his career when, he admits, “I was just trying to excite people.”

Now he’s trying to excite people in a much different way.

“Can he win a major? Absolutely,” Harmon states. “If he can continue to trend in the right direction, that to me is the goal.”

That won’t keep those Bunyan-esque stories from continuing to fester.

“As I get a little older,” laughs his father, Dan, “if I can flush one 250-260 yards and he hits it 100 by me, there’s that feeling of just, ‘Golly, how do you do that?’ I have a joke with him: ‘If I had your equipment at your age, I’d hit it that far, too.’ He just laughs at me.”

“He’ll be warming up on the range and other players take notice,” Navarro says. “When he pulls the driver out, guys on either side of him will watch him hit a few drives because they like to watch how far he hits it.”

That’s life as a circus freak. No matter how intent Woodland is on shedding that label, no matter how much he wishes people would understand, he’ll continue to be known as the player who launches drives like fireworks until he gives them reason to know him otherwise.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.