Like many of you, I was rooting for two things at the US Open. The first was for history, wanting to see Brooks Koepka win his third straight US Open. The second, and the one I was rooting for greater, was for Gary Woodland to hold his lead and win. I didn’t want to see him choke, and didn’t think he would, despite history showing him 0 for 7 with a 54 hole lead. That stat alone does’t tell the whole story, and frankly is not surprising to see a player on the wrong side of that. There are too many good players that can go low. If anyone knows that it’s Gary Woodland.
I followed Woodland for four days at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii this past January. He held the 54 hole lead by three strokes heading into the final round on the stunning Plantation Course. He shot -5 67 and still lost! That wins nearly every week on the PGA Tour, but Xander Schauffele blitzed him with a 62 to win the tournament. Woodland watched it all happen in front of him, and just missed a chance to force a playoff with a birdie on the final hole. It was a stunning loss.
When making the call for PGA Tour Radio, we usually throw some excitement into the final call announcing the winner even if it’s not the guy that played the last shot. Standing behind the 18th green, I couldn’t muster an emphasis because the gallery and folks in the chalets were just as stunned as Gary Woodland that he somehow didn’t win. Giving an exclamation on “Woodland’s miss means Xander Schauffele has won the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions!!” seemed like pouring the entire shaker of salt in the wound.
After the round, I had to interview Woodland and before we started, I told him I had no idea what to say to him and apologized. He was gracious, said no problem, and said that’s golf. It happens. I was hoping that didn’t happen to him from Brooks Koepka at the US OPEN.
Early on it looked like it was going to happen. Koepka came out firing with a birdie binge that put him within range. Justin Rose got within one early, but the magic putter ran out of par saving potion on the back nine. Woodland did a great job of never losing the lead. I think that was crucial for him as he peaked at the leaderboard and saw Koepka ascending to him. And then the moment that defined his championship came.
On the par 5 14th he hit a quality drive and found the fairway. Brennan Little, his caddie, told him to play aggressive and hit a three wood to try and reach the green in two. Make it, and a birdie puts him in control. Miss it, bogey was possibility. I’ve been to Pebble, that is a tighter shot than it looks on TV. Left is no good and right is out of bounds. Woodland;s mind was set on hitting a great shot, not on what could go wrong. That’s what champions do; commit to hitting great shots. The key is knowing when to go for it, and when not to. The holes following the 14th were not going to offer the opportunities to control destiny. It was the moment, and he flushed a beauty! The ball cleared the bunker and ended up against the collar, hole high left. A chip that the pros execute all the time to keep it close and make birdie.
Following the birdie at 14, the only thing that could derail Woodland was some magic from Brooks Koepka. The two time defending champion tried, going for eagle at 18, but was unable to pull it off. It was a bold effort and a continuation of a remarkable run in the Majors. Finishing runner up again is tremendous. It wasn’t a third consecutive win, but Koepka earned even more fans the way he played, handled himself afterward, and will like be a favorite for The Open next month.
As for Woodland, how can you not be happy for that guy? He’s an All-American guy with a big heart who’s overcome some personal adversity to become a champion. I look forward to what he does next.
One of the cool things about the tournament at Kapalua was getting to know Gary Woodland’s parents that week. I was driving my own cart (usually we have volunteers) that week and offered his father Dan a ride up the hill on the 5th hole. He said sure and thanked me. After the fifth, I told him the walk from 5 to 6 was even worse and he could hop on again. He asked if I could give his wife Linda a ride instead as she was struggling with a bad knee. No problem!
For the rest of that week, I drove either Dan or Linda from hole to hole with me, enjoying the conversation and great golf their son was playing. They’re great people and I’m happy for them too, watching their son win our nation’s championship.
Speaking of winning a championship, I’m proud to be a repeat champion of the Pavement Pot. What is the Pavement Pot? I’m glad you asked. It’s an annual golf event some members of Fox Valley and Lancaster CC created last year to celebrate friendship through the game of golf. Last year, we played in the fall at Fox Valley, a two man best ball event. My friend Matt was my partner and we zigged and zagged our way to victory.
This year, we decided to add 18 more holes and some intrigue. The morning round was to be played at Lancaster CC and be a gross score. The top half of the scores would go in one side of the draw, the bottom half, the other. Teams for the best ball round in the afternoon at Fox Valley would be random draw, one from each hat at a time. It was a rush to get from Lancaster to Fox for the afternoon tee times (wind and wet conditions slowed things down), but we made it.
I drew my buddy Dale, the best dressed golfer in his knickers and Payne Steward cap. We blistered the front 9, thanks to a few timely birdies and lucky bounces. We were -5 heading onto the back 9, 4 strokes better that the next group. It’s a good thing we had that lead because I started to leak serious oil, and we threw a few bogey’s on the card after two early net birdies and an eagle. We limped to the finish with a closing bogey, but our early lead served us well as we on by 3 shots.
The best part of the entire event was the post party at our friend Sean’s house, a place he calls Hotel California. It’s a beautiful house on the water, a great gathering place with all of our wives waiting to be bored by our golf stories from the day. Sean’s wife Linda knocked herself out with the spread, and laughs were shared over a few beers. I can’t wait until next year’s event, and hope more friends, old and new, are able to participate.