PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It took someone as big and strong as Brooks Koepka to knock that chip off Koepka’s shoulder, and that’s exactly what Gary Woodland did at Pebble Beach to win the 119th U.S. Open.
Woodland won by three strokes over Koepka and by six over Xander Schauffele, 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, Chez Reavie and Spain’s Jon Rahm. His bold, burly brawny, 264-yard 3-wood second shot on the par-5 14th set up a two-putt birdie and was the defining shot of the tournament. It allowed Woodland to maintain a two-shot lead over a hard-charging Koepka, who had opened his round with four birdies in five holes.
“We just wanted to play aggressive,” Woodland stated. “I hit a great drive on 14. It was either we're going to lay up, or we're going to go for it and we sat there and thought about it for a while and said let's go, we're out here to win. Played aggressive and it paid off.”
He needed to play aggressive. Koepka was putting on a charge like Nicklaus in 1982. The back-to-back defending champion opened with four birdies in five holes, and as Justin Rose faded in the clutch, the back nine was a race between Woodland and Koepka. Woodland’s closing 69 finished off a week where he tied the second-lowest aggregate score in U.S. Open history (a 13-under 271) and posted scores below 70 for all four rounds, joining Lee Trevino, Rory McIlroy, Lee Janzen as the only U.S. Open champions to do so to do so. (Koepka became the first player to beat 70 all four rounds and lose.)
“I played great. Nothing I could do,” Koepka sighed, wiping his brow with his forearm. "Gary played a great four days. That's what you've got to do if you want to win a U.S. Open, win a major championship and hats off to him."
Woodland also had zero three-putts all week and missed only three greens on Sunday, tied for first in the field on the day. His closing bomb of a birdie putt on 18 was not just an exclamation point, it was a carronade, a thundering blast heralding his arrival at the elite level and player to be reckoned with going forward.
It’s been a long time coming. Woodland was zero-for-seven holding 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour before Sunday, including this season’s Kapalua tour stop where he shot 65 on Sunday, but Xander Schauffele shot 60 and rocketed past him to take the Tournament of Champions. Woodland was often seen atop major championship leader boards on Thursdays, but then disappeared. With his 400-yard drives perennially placing him atop the driving distance tables, he was more a curiosity, an oddity, a bit player. But with hard practice on his short game and a great mental attitude, Woodland has learned to close out tournaments. He’s learned to handle the pressure...finally.
“I think the big deal is to enjoy the pressure. Obviously it's an uncomfortable situation leading in a major championship after 36 holes, after 54 holes,” he explained candidly. “But I kept telling myself, even this morning, to enjoy this moment. Enjoy the pressure. Enjoy the stress. Enjoy being uncomfortable. And don't shy away from it, embrace it. And that's what I really tried to do, is embrace that pressure all day. And I think that helped me stay a little more calm.”
Better still, the mantle of champion seems to fit well on Woodland’s broad shoulders. There is a world of difference between a winner and a champion. As author Kurt Vonnegut put it, it's the difference between doing things in style and doing them with style. It may have taken a bruiser with a big driver to hold off Koepka, but it took someone with a heart as soft as Santa Claus to help a girl with Down’s Syndrome become an Internet superstar, but that’s exactly what true champions like Gary Woodlland do. And it’s Woodland’s befriending 20-year-old Amy Bockerstette that’s been the story that stole the tournament.
You’ll recall that during the Tuesday of the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, Amy was selected to play the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale with Gary and Matt Kuchar.
It was beautiful to see how warmly she was embraced the fans. Normally on that hole, they are an executioner sharpening the scythe, but in a testament to how true golf fans believe in our sport’s ethos of altruism and camaraderie, they helped buoy this sweet-swinging, sweet-smiling girl to a par with a sand save, including a 10-foot putt.
All Arizona rang with the cheering, while she blew kisses to the crowd.
At that moment, even the Grinch’s heart would have grown another three more sizes.
Cut to this week and there’s Gary crediting Amy with some inspiration, while she and her family watch and cheer on the couch. They even shared a Facetime together.
“She's meant everything for me from a mental standpoint," he said. "The world needs more of her in it. Her attitude, her love for life, love for the game and her positive energy is so contagious.She sent me a nice video when I got sick and had to pull out of Wells Fargo. She sent me an amazing birthday video, singing happy birthday to me. She's a special girl, special parents and it's nice to call her a friend.”
True champions set good examples. While people who do things in style are trying to make themselves look good, people who do things with style make everyone look good. Woodland and Amy set a great example not just for golf, but for everyone. He even made a special trip this morning to visit Amy at her home so she could see the trophy first hand. Woodland looks to be a great ambassador for golf. And that's a terrific way to start his reign as national champion.
NEWS, NOTES and QUOTES
Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Louis Ooshuizen all spit the bit on Championship Sunday. Rose lost his swing in the clutch and did a slow fade down the leader board from the eighth hole on, bogeying Nos. 8, 12, 13 and 15. Rose played that same back nine all week in 7 under par, better than anyone else in the field. Only Woodland had similar success, not carding a back nine bogey until the 12th on Sunday.
Pebble Beach was never its true self. The sun stayed hidden behind the clouds like a shy child. It was cold, clammy, misty, at times even rainy, but it was never the warm, inviting, California the Beach Boys sang about. This was more John Fogerty and “Have you ever seen the Rain?”
WOODLAND: I went to school, to Washburn to play basketball and I always believed if basketball didn't work out I could fall back on golf.
And our first game we played Kansas at the University of Kansas. They were ranked No. 1 in Division I and we were ranked No. 2 in Division II. And that decision got forced on me really quickly. I was guarding Curt Hinrich and, like, okay, I need to find something else, because this ain't gonna work. And that was my first game in college. I was a two-time State champion, All-State, blah, blah, blah, but that was a different level.
And so when I transitioned to golf the next year, that was the first time in my life I'd ever focused solely on golf. It took me a little bit, but I got out here a year after school on the PGA TOUR in 2009. It's 11 years later now being out here. I don't think my game is where it needs to be, but it's getting there. I'm becoming a more complete player, I have more shots. I can rely more on my putting, rely on my short game. Things I couldn't do even last year.
People probably growing up said U.S. Open wouldn't suit me, because I'm a long hitter, I'm a bomber. Coming to Pebble Beach, on top of that, it's a shorter golf course. And went out and proved, I think to everybody else, what I always believed, that I'm pretty good.
U.K. MEDIA SCRIBBLER: “I think McIlroy is wearing white so that the aerial cameras can’t see him in the sand.”
ADAM SCOTT: “The rough is like a children’s wildlife show.”