PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Many major victories are poetic, flawless renditions of perfection and grace. This was a brawl between two players who would rather bench press the U.S. Open trophy than hoist it triumphantly over their heads.
This wasn’t the kind of chess match we are accustomed to seeing on the refined grounds of Augusta National or St. Andrews so much as it was a cage match between the game’s undisputed strongman, Brooks Koepka, and a former college-point-guard-turned-PGA-Tour-player, Gary Woodland.
For those who will take to Google first thing Monday morning to find out who Gary Woodland is, the simplest of answers is: he’s someone who was made to halt Koepka’s historic run at the U.S. Open.
Woodland is Jaxson’s dad, who turns 2 years old next week, and the pride of Washburn University, where he played college basketball before trading in his high-tops for golf shoes following a humbling loss to his beloved Kansas Jayhawks during his freshman year. He’s married to Gabby, who deserves style points for once having a urinal installed in Woodland’s man cave as a gift, and he once took a knee to the throat during a high school basketball game that landed him in the emergency room with a collapsed trachea.
“I remember that one; left on a stretcher,” Woodland said, reminiscing with a smile. “That was on a Tuesday and I scored 20-some points on Friday, was player of the week. That guy was trying to dunk on me.”
Imagine Koepka, the game’s preeminent heavyweight at the moment, trying to posterize Woodland at Pebble Beach and you get an idea of how Sunday played out. The undersized point guard was having no part of it.
The native of Topeka, Kansas, was once put into a game while at Washburn against the Ichabods’ rivals, Northwest Missouri State, and connected on five 3-pointers for the victory. He made 14 of 15 free-throws in a high school game, and broke his right pinkie finger while at Washburn because he wasn’t going to allow his coach to ever question his heart or his hustle.
“His coach told me he feels guilty now every time [Gary] misses a putt,” recalled Woodland’s father, Dan. “I think the coach challenged him twice to get a rebound, so when he got his floor burn he broke his finger.”
Where the world saw a player who until last year had never finished in the top 10 at a major, those who know Woodland – the real Woodland who always knew he’d be a professional athlete of some sort – understood it wasn’t his relative inexperience that would factor into Sunday’s outcome; it was his heart.
It’s the athlete’s maxim, the two things you can always control is your attitude and your effort. Woodland was flawless on both fronts at Pebble Beach. The athlete also knew that like every great accomplishment there would come a time when he would take a punch to the mouth – and those blows came early on Sunday.
After beginning the day with a one-stroke lead, things intensified quickly when Justin Rose birdied the first hole to tie for the lead. But it was Koepka, who was vying to win his third consecutive U.S. Open, who would elevate the situation.
Koepka birdied four of his first five holes to move to within two strokes of the lead and he cut that advantage to a single shot with a 10-footer for birdie at No. 11. The man who bludgeoned Bethpage Black into submission at the PGA Championship, to win his fourth major in eight Grand Slam starts last month, appeared poised to duplicate that effort when he hoisted his approach shot from a ridiculously bad lie right of the 15th fairway to set up a 30-foot birdie attempt.
Gucci, Gucci, gouge.
“I get tendonitis just looking at that lie,” deadpanned Steve Flesch, the Fox Sports reporter walking with Koepka’s group.
But Koepka failed to convert the birdie attempt that would have moved him into a share of the lead, and a moment later a low roar echoed across the scenic landscape as Woodland rifled a 3-wood up the hill at the par-5 14th hole to set up a two-putt birdie.
The Black and Blue Open was transformed in an instant into a coronation.
Sensing the moment, Woodland muscled the title away from a flexing Koepka with a routine par at the 16th hole and the second-best chip in Pebble Beach Open history, behind Tom Watson’s chip-in during the 1982 championship. After his tee shot found the right corner of the 17th green, with the flag tucked over a ridge on the left edge of the putting surface, there was only one option.
“It was 64-degree wedge and I clipped it perfectly,” Woodland said of his chip that nestled 2 feet from the hole.
It was the second time this week Woodland had played that shot, the first coming on Friday when he had an even more challenging chip over the spine of the green to a hole cut in the back left. Back when he worked with swing coach Rick Smith he regularly practiced chipping off putting surfaces to improve his contact.
“There were some times when superintendents weren't a huge fan of me,” Woodland said with a laugh.
Like everything else in his wildly unusual career, it was all part of his development. He was born for this moment. From the endless hours shooting free-throws with his father as a youngster, to his decision to bolt Washburn after his freshman year to play college golf at Kansas.
“The question about if I ever dreamed of making the putt on the last hole of a U.S. Open when I was a kid, no, I didn't, but I hit a lot of game-winning shots on the basketball court when I was a kid,” said Woodland, who finished his week with a 2-under 69 and a 13-under total. “That's what I did. I've always believed in myself. And it's nice when you do that. And [when] you surround yourself with great people, good things happen.”
It was only fitting that the “Brawl on the Beach” came down to some steely small ball. Following his delicate chip at the 17th hole Woodland opted for an iron off the tee at the par-5 18th hole followed by a layup and an approach shot to 30 feet.
Woodland has always had talent, both physical and otherwise, but as Matt Kuchar, who loitered in the scoring area to congratulate Woodland, explained, he was “raw.” He came late to the game by modern standards and he admits that he hasn’t won as regularly as he would like. But where others would have been discouraged with their lack of results, Woodland was inspired.
“He’s been a tough kid his entire life. Don’t ever tell him he can’t because he’ll do everything he can to prove you wrong,” Dan Woodland said. “He loved this. He loves competition, he loves going head-to-head. He wanted Brooks to play his best today. He wanted to go out and earn it.”
With the June gloom hanging low over the 18th green, as it had all week, Woodland offered the final blow, a tumbling 30-footer for birdie and victory. It wasn’t poetic or graceful, it was a knockout punch in the mouth. Exactly what one would expect.