CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Gary Woodland arrived at Washburn University in the fall of 2002 he was an undersized point guard who admittedly had never really been tested.
That changed quickly.
“At one of his first practices [Woodland] gets in there and gets a rebound and I stop practice and start giving it to the guys, ‘What are you doing letting this freshman get a rebound?’ I made them run laps forever,” recalled Bob Chipman, the Ichabods’ basketball coach for 38 seasons. “The seniors laid into him after that, don’t you dare try to get another rebound.”
Woodland didn’t stop then and he hasn’t stopped since.
Chipman went on to explain that Woodland had a magical shooting touch at Washburn, setting the 3-point record for a freshman in his lone season with the team, but what he truly admired was that unquantifiable toughness –
“hard-nosed” is how the legendary coach explained it.
“He is hard-nosed,” said Butch Harmon, Woodland’s swing coach, “just look at him. He’s tough, he’s an athlete, he’s a joy to work with because he’s used to being coached as a basketball player.”
Woodland’s time at Washburn was short and he left the team after his freshman year to play golf at Kansas and eventually the PGA Tour. But that toughness that defined his time in Topeka, Kan., was just as evident on Thursday at the PGA Championship when he rounded Quail Hollow Club in 68 strokes for a share of second place, just a stroke off the first-round lead.
It was there two weeks ago when he found a way to finish fourth at the RBC Canadian Open with what has become a common problem for the 33-year-old in recent months – a stone, cold putter.
“The way I’ve putted lately, I haven’t made anything, so you have to find a way to get through that and focus on other things and hopefully putts go in,” Woodland said. “I grinded through to finish fourth in Canada and found a way to give myself a chance on Sunday when I wasn’t making any putts.”
But most telling is how he found a way to move forward after what he calls the hardest year of his life. In March, Woodland revealed via social media that his wife, Gabby, who was pregnant with twins, suffered from complications which resulted in the loss of one child.
In June, Gabby gave birth to the couple’s first child, Jaxson, who was born 10 weeks early and weighed just 3 pounds.
“With what we dealt with for a long time and the struggle my wife has had to deal with. It’s been hard for me to leave home,” Woodland said following his best round at a major since the 2012 PGA Championship.
Jaxson still needs a monitor to help with his breathing and he’s scheduled to undergo surgery next week for a hernia, but he’s home, which is all that matters to both mother and father after what has understandably been an emotional few months for the Woodlands.
Every day, after good round or bad, Woodland leaves the golf course and spends time with Jaxson via FaceTime. The perspective has made everything in Woodland’s life predictably easier, even a putter that hasn’t been cooperating.
“Just knowing he’s safe. Before he was born we didn’t know if he was going to make it. And then he was born so early, luckily the doctors and the nurses were so good,” Woodland said.
It was Woodland’s improved putting on Day 1 at Quail Hollow, where he took just 16 putts per green in regulation, that moved him into contention, not to mention a long game that is a perfect fit for what is quickly becoming the season’s toughest major venue.
“He’s probably playing the best he’s ever played in his life. He’s driving the ball beautifully, his distance really helps,” Harmon said. “This week he’s made some putts, which he’s been struggling with.”
But there was no hiding the solace of having Jaxson at home awaiting his FaceTime call. That ease had been missing the last few months on Tour as Woodland, normally one of the circuit’s most engaging players, wrestled with the emotions and uncertainty.
Throughout the last few months Woodland’s toughness was tested, but the hard-nosed player never stopped moving forward, just like he did at Washburn.
“I learned how to work and how to fight [at Washburn],” Woodland said on Thursday.
Late in Woodland’s season at Washburn, Chipman recalled a game against Northwest Missouri State, the Ichabods’ rivals.
“They had us beaten bad, so at the half I threw [Woodland] in and he hit five 3-pointers, the last one was way beyond NBA range to win the game,” Chipman laughed. “I figure a guy that can do that shouldn’t have any problem making putts.”
Just as the guy who endured the trials brought by the last few months seems to be having no problem dealing with the relative pressure of a major championship.