SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – After holing a short putt to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Gary Woodland plucked the ball from the hole and pointed skyward.
His entourage at TPC Scottsdale ran deep on Sunday: Both his parents were there, as were other family members. His wife, Gabby, was nearby holding his 7-month-old son, Jaxson.
But in the moment after capturing his first PGA Tour win in nearly five years, Woodland’s thoughts immediately went to the one family member who wasn’t there.
“That was just kind of a tribute to last year,” Woodland said while choking back tears. “Obviously we lost a little girl, and being there, seeing my wife give birth to her, that’s real.”
When he and Gabby first announced they were pregnant with twins last spring, Woodland explained on social media that it’s “the first time I’ve been excited about a double.” But that excitement turned to sorrow in the middle of Gabby’s pregnancy, when they learned that one of the twins would not survive.
Jaxson was born 10 weeks premature on June 23, the highlight of a tumultuous summer for Woodland that saw him spend almost as much time in the NICU ward at the hospital as on the course.
“I couldn’t wait for 2018 to start,” he explained. “Couldn’t wait for 2017 to be over with.”
With a new year came renewed optimism, with Woodland again focusing on his game as Jaxson continued to make progress. Despite all the turmoil last season, he managed to make it to the Tour Championship and carried that form into his most recent starts: T-7 at the Sony Open, T-12 at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Sure, the winless drought stretched back to the 2013 Barracuda Championship. But his peers knew its end was near.
“I typically look at leaderboards and see who’s had good weeks, kind of week in and week out, and figure they’re due for a win,” said Matt Kuchar. “And Gary was that guy that was due.”
Woodland admitted he has struggled to piece together four good rounds in a single tournament, but he did so brilliantly at TPC Scottsdale, where a final-round 64 got him into a playoff in which he defeated Chez Reavie with a par on the opening hole.
Woodland appeared set to take home the title in regulation, but two closing birdies from Reavie forced overtime. Given what Woodland has endured off the course in recent months, playing an extra hole with the trophy up for grabs was a minor inconvenience.
It helped, perhaps, that he was minutes removed from a round that included nine birdies, allowing him to quickly erase an overnight three-shot deficit.
“I didn’t even know I made nine birdies until I got done,” he said. “My caddie asked me, ‘How many birdies did you make?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ So obviously I was in the zone, I was kind of in the moment all day and just trying to give myself a chance.”
Woodland has long been viewed as one of the Tour’s best athletes, a prodigious driver who won two state titles in basketball while in high school in Kansas. His burly physique would have been well-suited for any athletic endeavor, but mashing a little white ball turned out to be his best option.
Even among Tour pros, his is an exceptionally high ceiling, and one that Kuchar knew was well within reach after just nine holes of practice together Tuesday on the Stadium Course.
“He was driving it so well. When he’s driving it well, golf becomes easy,” Kuchar said. “He’s doing that right now, and he’s making the game look pretty easy.”
In the off-season, Woodland met with longtime instructor Butch Harmon to try to identify the missing ingredient that had prevented strong play from turning into wins. Harmon offered counsel, but he also suggested a meeting with short-game guru Pete Cowen. This week Woodland even sought the putting wisdom of PGA Tour Champions member Brad Faxon.
Sometimes it really does takes a village.
“I feel like I can make a lot of putts, and I haven’t felt that way in a long time,” Woodland said. “And obviously with the way I hit it and now I’m confident with the short game, and the putter starts working, good things will happen.”
This victory won’t change Woodland’s career arc – if anything, it validates the position many of his peers felt he has long deserved to occupy.
But in the moment of victory, he wasn’t thinking about his career standing, or the victory drought that had finally come to a close after years of hard work. With Gabby nearby and Jaxson in her arms, Woodland thought first of the daughter who never got a chance to share in a post-victory celebration.
“I just wanted her to know that I still love her,” he said.