ATLANTA – Making it to East Lake for the season send-off is a singular accomplishment for any PGA Tour player.
It validates months, years of hard work and commitment. It’s a reward for a season that ranks among the top 30 on the world’s biggest stage and brings a mountain of rewards that allow players to ease into next season with the closest thing the Tour has to job security.
But for Gary Woodland, the 6-foot-1 former college point guard whose intensity on the course is matched only by his approachability when the scorecard is signed, his fifth trip to Atlanta goes much deeper than a particular professional accomplishment.
“This year means more to me than any other, it really does,” Woodland said on Thursday at the Tour Championship. “This was the toughest year of my life by far. The little man has been dealing with a little bit of stuff, but it’s just never been easy.”
Woodland’s “little man” is his son, Jaxson, who was born 10 weeks premature in June. When the 33-year-old put himself into contention at the PGA Championship in August, Jaxson was still on a monitor that helped him breathe and had just gotten home from an extended stay at the hospital.
As hard as that would be on any parent, for Woodland and his wife, Gabby, at least Jaxson was fighting, at least he was part of their lives.
In March, Woodland abruptly withdrew from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play citing personal reasons and explained via Twitter that Gabby, who was pregnant with twins, had suffered from complications that resulted in the loss of one child.
Woodland, who had gotten off to his best season on Tour, returned for the Masters but understandably struggled on his way to a missed cut.
Everything became harder - golf, being away from home, not knowing what would happen with Jaxson.
“Every off week since the Match Play my wife or my kid has been in the hospital,” he said at East Lake following a 67 that left him tied for sixth place. “The only week he wasn’t in the hospital we had to evacuate Florida, so it’s just been no off weeks and that’s been tough.”
Gabby and Jaxson bolted south Florida the week before Hurricane Irma cut a swath through the state and Woodland joined them in Kansas after the Dell Technologies Championship. When they returned home, they were without power and water for three days.
It’s been that kind of year for Woodland and family.
Everyone deals with life’s ebbs and flows, be they a Tour player or mechanic, and Woodland’s not big on excuses. That’s not the way when you grow up in Topeka, Kan., but he concedes that balancing life and work has been a challenge this season.
“The first couple of months after everything happened it was tough for me, mentally,” he said. “It was tough because I was playing so well leading up to that. I gave myself so many chances early in the year to win and just dealing mentally off the course, I couldn’t focus enough.”
It’s not surprising that while Gabby and Jaxson’s medical fortunes have improved - the “little guy” is home again and doing much better - so has Woodland’s competitive outlook.
He finished fourth at the RBC Canadian Open and played solidly at the PGA, where he tied for 22nd. But he began the playoffs squarely on the East Lake bubble at 34th on the points list.
Woodland rallied with weekend rounds of 67-67 at the Dell Technologies Championship and closed with a 69 last week at the BMW Championship to narrowly secure his trip to the East Lake promised land at 28th on the playoff points list.
For each of the 30 assembled this week at the Tour Championship it’s an accomplishment worth savoring, but for Woodland it’s something much more than simply a cushy reward for a season well played and a ticket into next year’s biggest events.
“I played well enough earlier in the year to give myself a little bit of a break,” he said. “To finish Boston and last week, which was a long week being right on the number, it’s definitely rewarding to be here this week.”
Not all seasons are created equal, which is why Woodland allows himself a moment to enjoy his accomplishment, and particularly his opening round.
“I probably should have took some time off and didn’t do it,” he admitted. “Coming back I just wasn’t putting up the scores and it became a mental grind all year.”
In three days, that grind ends and he can go back to Florida to a house that’s actually a home for the first time since March to be with his wife and “little guy.”
Woodland plans to cut back on his normal fall schedule, skipping the Tour’s stop in China, and may add a trip to Las Vegas to play the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open so he can get some practice time with swing coach Butch Harmon, who he hasn’t been able to work with since his world unraveled.
But for now he’s content to enjoy one of the game’s most significant accomplishments after what by any measure was the most trying of years.