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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After Further Review: Spieth needs a break

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 25, 2018, 1:11 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...

Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.

Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.

A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.

So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray

On the difference between this week and last week ...

There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.

Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.

At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard

On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...

Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.

Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.

Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell

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Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:39 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.

Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.

After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”

Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.

“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”

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Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:07 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.

At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.

Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.

Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”

Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.

Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.

“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”

Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.

“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”

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Bubba thrives in his comfort zone

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:02 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.

On the other side was art.

Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.

But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.

Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts in Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.

It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.

This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.

“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.

Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.

“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”

What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.

“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”

But regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.

The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.

“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”

While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.

It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.

“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”