PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Two years ago, the shot would have terrified him. A 64-degree wedge, a 30-yard pitch, tight Poa annua turf, gnarly rough looming over the green – and the U.S. Open on the line.
But this wasn’t the Gary Woodland of old, not the uber-athletic, one-dimensional bomber who could bludgeon a course with his power and then bungle the most straightforward shots around the greens. No, this time, he didn’t flinch. He perfectly clipped that pitch shot off the far-right corner of Pebble Beach’s 17th green, his ball carrying a ridge, checking and then nestling to within a few feet to preserve his lead.
Afterward, Woodland downplayed the gutsy shot, as if he were a short-game savant. He said that he’d practiced it plenty. That it was simple technique, taking the heel of the wedge off the ground and delivering the leading edge to the back of the ball. That the prospect of blading the pitch shot and spoiling his Open bid never even crossed his mind.
“I have a short game now I can rely on,” he beamed.
It wasn’t that long ago that touch and finesse and creativity around the greens were considered God-given attributes, not learned skills. You either possessed them or you didn’t. You either had Seve-like wizardry or hands like Lee Westwood. Simple as that.
But survey the major landscape, and notice how Woodland is merely the latest breakthrough winner who has transformed into a more complete player largely because of a vastly improved short game. Brooks Koepka has won four of his last nine majors not because of brute strength but rather because his chipping and pitching is no longer a glaring weakness. Ditto for Francesco Molinari, whose metronomic ball-striking only led to important titles once he also learned how to scramble.
“They all have brilliant hand-eye coordination – that’s why they’re out here,” said Pete Cowen, the swing coach primarily responsible for Woodland and Koepka’s steep short-game improvement. “But if we can give them better mechanics with that wonderful hand-eye coordination, that’s how we can make them better.”
Of the three recent major winners, Woodland’s ascent might be the most dramatic. Last season he was ranked 177th in strokes gained: around the green, saving par from the sand just 41 percent of the time and getting up-and-down on slightly more than half of his attempts (54 percent).
Desperate for a fix, he began working with Cowen, and they overhauled every aspect, from his setup to his grip to his angle of attack. “We started from ground zero,” Woodland said.
With almost every student Cowen focuses on three fundamentals: the correct starting line, the correct flight and the correct spin.
“A lot of players say, ‘Oh, the ball has checked on me,’ or, ‘Ah, it’s released on me,’” Cowen said Tuesday on Royal Portrush’s driving range. “Well, it can’t do that by itself. You had to have made that movement, and you didn’t know you were making it, so what makes that happen?”
Cowen offers his students an education on the basics, then provides them with the new skills to succeed. During practice, he starts at the 20-yard mark and forces his players to master different trajectories and spins. Then he works on longer distances.
“There’s an A, B, C or D shot,” Cowen said, “so instantly, as soon as they see the lie, there’s no questioning it. It’s all good vibes from there.”
At first Woodland grew frustrated by the process, but before long he was a changed player. Now ranked 77th on Tour, he’s climbed 100 spots in the strokes-gained statistic since working with Cowen.
“It’s a lot of technique to begin with, and then comes the confidence,” said Woodland, who became so emboldened that he pulled off the shot of the U.S. Open, the gut-check pitch on the 71st hole that he never would have even attempted 18 months ago.
“Oh, no,” Cowen said. “He couldn’t have played it.”
“I have more confidence with everything,” Woodland said. “The short game has really transformed everything.”
Coming out of Florida State, Koepka thought he possessed a strong short game, but he was quickly exposed during his first few events as a pro.
On a scale of 1-10, Cowen told Koepka that his short game was a "1."
“It was terrible,” he said.
But during their six years together, Cowen not only has served as an important mentor and sounding board. He’s also equipped Koepka with a new arsenal of shots to take his game to the next level. After ranking outside the top 150 in scrambling in 2016 and ’17, he was the 12th-best scrambler on Tour last season and currently sits 61st.
“Pete’s been one of the best things that’s happened to me,” Koepka said. “I like to be aggressive, and even if I’m short-sided now, I’ve still got two or three shots that I can actually hit two or three different clubs with and still get it up and down.”
And where does he fall now on the Cowen Scale of Short-Game Greatness?
Koepka said he’s a "4." Cowen wasn’t as generous.
“He’s gone from a 1 out of 10 to a 3 out of 10, so he’s had 200-percent improvement,” Cowen said. “And there’s plenty to go, that’s for sure. Any short game you’ve got to control the ball flight with spin and the pressure, so teaching them how to pressurize the shot and control the spin is really important as well. That’s good mechanics.”
Molinari’s evolution into a tidy scrambler had less to do with mechanics and more with his mental approach. For years he’s been mediocre around the greens, which helped explain why he enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career heading into 2018. Then performance coach Dave Allred and chipping specialist James Ridyard stepped in, helping the Italian maximize his potential and unleash the machine’s inner artist.
Last year at Carnoustie, Molinari stared down Tiger Woods in the final round, played bogey-free over the weekend and ranked fifth in scrambling. This year, with improved technique, he’s made immense strides with his bunker play, rocketing from 125th to second in sand saves.
Even more impressive: At age 36, Molinari has reinvented himself into a more well-rounded player.
“Before I was stuck in a box that partly was built around me by other people and in part by myself,” he said. “They’ve helped me understand that I created that box, and there was no reason that I wouldn’t be able to get out of that box.”
The ultimate test might come this week at Royal Portrush. With many elevated greens repelling balls into low runoff areas, players will have plenty of options to try to save par, from bump-and-run chips to high-spinning checkers to delicate flops.
No worries. Woodland, Koepka and Molinari now have the knowledge – and the skills – to pull off any shot required.