PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland shocked the golf world and stomped on the back-to-back-to-back U.S. Open championship dreams of Brooks Koepka on Sunday at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
But Woodland didn’t shock himself. His three-shot victory over Koepka, capped by a 30-foot bravura birdie putt on the 72nd green, was the culmination of years of work, especially dramatic improvement in his short game over the past two years and a remarkable discovery of how to putt within the past few weeks. Since the middle of last season, his game has been building, peaking until he entered this U.S. Open ranked 25th in the world and brimming with confidence. Only one huge issue remained: Woodland seldom wins. And he never even gets close in a major championship.
In his 13 years as a pro, he had won only three middling PGA Tour events. The first 27 times he entered major championships, he never cracked the top 10. In two of his past three majors, he improved to tied for sixth and eighth. But a top-five finish — never.
At the end, Woodland’s one-shot lead became a three-shot appointment with golf immortality. Asked whether he had ever allowed himself to dream this big, he answered, “No, I never did.”
That is, until this week, when he could sense, and said repeatedly, that every part of his game was clicking, that Pebble Beach suited him and that there was no reason he couldn’t win.
“That’s as good as I’ve ever been,” Woodland said after his 68-65-69-69 — 271 (13-under-par) week had made a runner-up of Koepka — who is now the first man ever to shoot four rounds in the 60s at the U.S. Open (69-69-69-68) and not win.
Sometimes, defeat reveals personality better than late-night alcohol. Koepka has been stoic, dominant and intimidating while winning two U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships in the past two years. But after a loss that denied him countless distinctions, he showed perfect grace. Hot under the collar after barely missing a nine-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole that would have cut Woodland’s lead to one, he regained his best self almost instantly.
“I tried to go as low as possible,” said Koepka, who started his round birdie-par-birdie-birdie-birdie. “I thought, ‘All right, we got a ballgame now.’ But (Woodland) played a hell of a round. Props to him. It dawned on me (after the last putt) that I was that close to accomplishing something that hasn’t been done in, what, more than 110 years. Nobody in the world played better than Gary did this week.”
If Woodland had busted a toe and withdrawn Tuesday, the honors that would now be heaped on Koepka are almost hard to believe. It may be better that Koepka seems not to fully sense his loss.
When Koepka arrived at the first tee at Erin Hills for the final round in 2017, he had won only one PGA Tour event. He was talented and had formidable prospects, but he was still a nobody.
When Koepka won the PGA Championship last month at Bethpage Black for his fourth major championship, he tied the career totals of Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els and Bobby Locke. That day he also passed the career totals of famous names such as Billy Casper, Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart, Nick Price and Vijay Singh. And with that fourth major he had as many as the career totals of Greg Norman and Johnny Miller combined.
If Koepka, 29, had won this U.S. Open, and only remarkable grit and shot-making by Woodland on the back nine prevented that, he would have five majors, equaling the career total of Phil Mickelson, the great Seve Ballesteros and (gulp) Byron Nelson.
Instead of hailing Koepka, the golf community can now appreciate Woodland more — especially two remarkable shots that keyed this victory. After wild-right drives at the 11th, 12th and 13th resulting in one bogey and two scary par saves, Woodland finally hit a fairway at the par-5 14th, albeit with a swing on which his foot slipped. Would he have the guts — or the foolhardiness — to attempt a 260-yard carry with a 3-wood to a narrow, elevated green with unspeakable hazards all around it?
Encouraged by caddie Brennan Little, Woodland, who for several years was the longest driver on tour, unleashed a wallop worthy of the moment; the ball hit the green and held in the fringe for an easy two-putt birdie. That moved Woodland back to a 12 under and gave him a two-shot lead.
The decisive sequence arrived with Koepka facing that nine-foot birdie putt on the 18th as Woodland faced a harrowing 100-foot shot on the par-3 17th. Given the configuration of the green, Woodland could not putt directly at the hole, even though his ball was only a foot off the green in the first cut. So he decided to chip over a tongue of rough, land beyond it and then try to check the ball up close to the hole. What could go wrong? What couldn’t? Bogey or double lurked everywhere.
“The 3-wood on the 14th gave me the confidence to hit the shot on 17,” said Woodland, who executed it so perfectly that the ball trickled to a halt just two feet past the hole.
“I thought it might go in,” Woodland added. “But I don’t want to take it over.”
When Koepka missed and Woodland tapped in for his par and a two-shot lead, the deal was iced.
Many will assume that Woodland, 35, is a one-shot wonder who should enjoy this moment of glory and not expect many more. Woodland, a basketball and baseball standout as well as a golfer in his teens, thinks this is backward. He got a late start on being a golf obsessive and has been playing catch-up with players who were fanatics at 10 while he wasn’t focused until college. Golf has its prodigies, but far more often the key to becoming a superior player is the time to refine your skills.
“My game is not where it needs to be. It’s getting there,” said Woodland, whose weak short game finally evolved into a strength last season. “A lot has happened just since last year. Today I proved to people what I always believed — that I’m pretty good.”
After his win, Woodland commiserated with Koepka, teasingly telling him: “You need to slow down. All day you were knocking on the door.”
Part of the tradition of the U.S. Open is the connection to Father’s Day. Two years ago, when Woodland’s wife, Gabby, was pregnant with twins, one of the children died in a miscarriage, but Jaxson Lynn Woodland, who arrived 10 weeks early, is now a healthy 2-year-old. In August, the Woodlands are expecting twin girls.
“Then life is going to get really real. I need to keep making birdies,” said Woodland, who earned $2.25 million Sunday — which buys a lot of diapers.
Often, U.S. Open winners get weepy about their fathers. That’s nice. But occasional contrast is appreciated. Woodland praised his father, Dan, who often worked nights, for coaching him in every sport (except golf) and beating his brains out whenever they competed.
“My dad never let me win. I didn’t beat him at golf until I was 13. I didn’t beat him at basketball until I was 15,” Woodland said. “When we played each other, he was big and mean.”
That’s excellent preparation for a Sunday at the U.S. Open when Brooks Koepka beats on your door for 18 holes, but Gary Woodland never let him through.