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Woodland searches for mix of power and strategy

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AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 10: Dustin Johnson of the United States lines up a putt on the second green during the final round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)  - 

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.