PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP)—Gary Woodland was going from birdies to bogeys, every shot filled with more adrenaline as he closed in on his first PGA Tour victory at the Transitions Championship.
“Kind of took me back to my basketball days,” Woodland said after his one-shot victory at Innisbrook.
If he had his way, Woodland might still be a point guard.
He played just about every sport growing up in Kansas. A shortstop until he was 16. Good enough in basketball that he turned down a golf scholarship to Kansas to play at Washburn, a Division II school that reached the regional semifinals his freshman year.
His first college game was against Kansas, in storied Allen Fieldhouse. Woodland scored three points in a lopsided loss.
“I realized maybe I need to do something different. This isn’t going to work,” he said. “The coach at Kansas, when I decided I was going to play basketball, he said, ‘You’re going to change your mind. You have a future in this game.’ I called him a year later, and here we stand.”
He was standing tall Sunday at Innisbrook after showing off his unpolished potential.
Woodland is on the A-list of power players in golf, which he showed with a 337-yard drive uphill on the fifth hole. What was so alarming about his one-shot victory over Webb Simpson is that he’s still learning the game.
Woodland always dabbled in golf, even as he was turning double plays and pulling up for a 3-pointer. He played only two junior events in golf, and didn’t really face any national competition until he got to Kansas.
Eight years later, he is a PGA Tour winner and on his way to the Masters. Beyond that? There’s no telling.
“We’re just the tip of the iceberg right now,” Woodland said. “I’m not anywhere near where I want to be. I’ve just got to keep building on it, just keep moving in the right direction. These are signs that we’re doing the right thing.”
He’s certainly surrounding himself with the right people.
Woodland works with swing coach Randy Smith in Dallas, and they decided to attack his weaknesses while he was recovering from shoulder surgery that cut short his rookie season in 2009.
For the putting he got some sound advice through Brad Faxon, one of the best with the flat stick, who suggested he get more speed in his putting stroke. And he spends plenty of time with Justin Leonard, who in the power era of golf still won 12 times and a major.
All of it carried him to a 4-under 67 at Innisbrook, and a wild finish.
Woodland wasn’t aware until after the round that he didn’t make a single par on the back nine of the Copperhead course until the one he needed so desperately on the 18th hole.
He followed a bogey on the par-5 11th—the second-easiest hole—with three straight birdies. He followed back-to-back bogeys to fall out of the lead with his best swing of the day, a 5-iron to 15 feet for birdie on the 17th hole.
But it all came down to the 18th.
Woodland smashed a 2-iron hybrid off the tee and from 148 yards up a steep hill hit a pitching wedge, not accounting for the adrenaline and sending it to the back of the green. The slope is so severe that there is no way to stop the ball unless it hits the hole, and Woodland did well to leave it only 10 feet beyond the cup.
“I tried to hit the back of the hole,” he said. “And fortunately, it went in.”
Then came the wait. Behind him was Simpson, his first time in serious contention and playing with poise. Simpson missed three straight greens and saved par each time, always in the lead. He needed a par to force a playoff on the final hole, but he, too, failed to account for being pumped up and hit wedge over the green.
Simpson had to chip, a tougher shot, and it rolled 20 feet by. He hammered the putt, but it never had a chance.
“I just didn’t hit a very good second shot,” Simpson said.
Scott Stallings, a PGA Tour rookie who missed every cut on the West Coast Swing to fall to the bottom of the status ladder, kept his poise and stayed in the game until the 16th, the toughest driving hole on the Copperhead course with trees to the left and water to the right. Stallings went right into the lake and made double bogey.
Even so, he shot a 70 and finished alone in third, which gets him in the Houston Open in two weeks.
“A sponsor exemption changed my year, and I can’t thank Transitions enough,” Stallings said. “Without them giving me an opportunity to play, there’s no way I would have been here. One good tournament completely changed my year.”
Brandt Snedeker finished fourth.
Justin Rose, a two-time winner last year who started the final round with a one-shot lead, was tied for the lead until making four straight bogeys through the 10th hole to fall out of contention. He wound up five shots behind.
The victory changes everything for Woodland, who finished at 15-under 269, won $990,000 and moved to No. 3 in the FedEx Cup standings. He also is on the cusp of cracking the top 50 in the world.
Woodland has played only two majors—both U.S. Opens for which he qualified — and has never been to a FedEx Cup playoff event. Two years ago as a rookie, he wasn’t even eligible for the Transitions.
“I wasn’t a very good golfer,” he said of his rookie season. “I was athletic, but I didn’t know what I was going out there. I got hurt, and I had time to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I’m starting to figure that out right now.”
Photo - Sam Greenwood / Getty Images
Doug Ferguson, AP Golf GolfGreedy.com