How Basketball and Baseball Helped Gary Woodland Master Golf

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland grew up a serial monogamist, in love, depending on the season, with basketball, baseball and golf. He bonded with his father on the golf course, aspired to be like the Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett and had shooting-guard dreams of glory until they were crushed in college by a future first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls, Kirk Hinrich.

Woodland, 35, was tasked with guarding Hinrich in his first game for Division II Washburn University against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. It did not go well. He can remember thinking, “O.K., I need to find something else, because this ain’t going to work.”

The next year, at roughly the same age that the three-time major champion Jordan Spieth won for the first time on the PGA Tour, Woodland transferred to Kansas and fully committed himself to golf. Sixteen years later, Woodland became the first Kansas alumnus to win one of the four major golf championships.

“I’ve just always believed in myself,” Woodland said. “No matter what I’ve done, from when I was a young kid, I always believed I would be successful.”

Woodland’s road to Sunday’s United States Open title at Pebble Beach was not the route anyone would have mapped out. Not in a world where Tiger Woods left college after two years, Rory McIlroy turned pro before finishing high school and the leader boards are lousy with players whose childhoods were sawed-down versions of their pro careers, replete with world rankings, nonstop travel and adult entourages.

But a funny thing happened to Woodland as he was supposedly wasting his time on other sports instead of focusing all of his attention on golf. He learned many transferable skills and life lessons that made him a better player and, he believes, a more grounded and well-rounded person.

“It’s been a process,” said Woodland, whose experience in baseball made him grateful that he didn’t specialize in golf early.

At 16, Woodland played shortstop for a youth team that won the American Amateur Baseball Congress national title in Georgia. Shortly thereafter, he quit the sport.

“We just played so much as a kid, especially that summer, I got burned out,” Woodland said.

From basketball, Woodland learned toughness. In high school, he took a charge from an opponent who was attempting to dunk over him, and was badly injured. He was rushed to the hospital emergency room, where he was treated for an injured trachea. Three days later, he returned to the court.

“I came back, scored 20,” Woodland said proudly.

On Sunday, Woodland held off a charging Brooks Koepka, who closed with a three-under 68. Koepka, the world’s top player, could not intimidate Woodland, who posted a 69 to beat Koepka, the world No. 1, by three strokes.

Woodland also learned breathing techniques in basketball that he has transferred to the golf course. Before shooting free throws, he took several deep, calming breaths and counted to three in his head to help block out the crowd noise. Between golf shots, he does the same thing. He takes deep breaths and, particularly on putts, he counts to three in his head before starting his stroke.

On Sunday, Woodland said, those techniques kept him “in the moment.”

He added, “I think from a mental standpoint I was as good as I’ve ever been. I never let myself get ahead of myself, I never thought about what would happen if I won.”

Being at the plate or on the free-throw line with the game on the line taught Woodland how to embrace the pressure and discomfort instead of succumbing to it. So when Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Koepka, who have a combined seven major titles, took turns making runs at him on Sunday, Woodland didn’t panic. He told himself, “Enjoy the stress. Enjoy being uncomfortable.”

Team sports also made Woodland coachable. When his instructor, Pete Cowen, suggested a few tweaks to his chipping stroke at the start of the week, Woodland didn’t question it or complain. He did as he was told, and his execution around the greens during the week was nearly perfect.

“He sent me an unbelievable text this morning that had nothing to do with my golf swing or technique,” Woodland said, referring to Cowen. “He said, ‘Every man dies, but not every man lives, and you live for this moment.’ I thought about that a lot today.”

And in the end, he got his first major victory in 30 attempts. Woodland doesn’t anticipate as long a wait before the next one. Employing the third-person plural to reflect the team effort that is any sport, Woodland said, “I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

Woodland also thought a lot Sunday about Amy Bockerstette, a golfer with Down syndrome whom he came to know during a meet-and-greet arranged by the Special Olympics and the tour before the Waste Management Open in Phoenix in January.

With Woodland looking on, Bockerstette stepped up to the tee on the par-3 16th, a party hole known for attracting thousands of raucous spectators, and dumped her tee shot into a greenside bunker. Woodland offered to hit the bunker shot but was rebuffed by Bockerstette, who said, “I’ve got this.”

She then earned Woodland’s everlasting admiration by pulling out the sand save. “You’re amazing!” Woodland repeatedly told Bockerstette as they hugged. Their interaction was preserved for posterity on a video, which attracted more than five million social media views. Woodland and Bockerstette have kept in touch, and after his victory Sunday night, they talked briefly on FaceTime.

Bockerstette reinforced a lesson that Woodland learned on the baseball diamond, the basketball court and especially on the golf course all those years he spent trying to catch up to the game’s wunderkinds.

“Her attitude, her love for life, love for the game and positive energy is so contagious,” Woodland said, adding, “There are going to be bad things in your life, a lot of ups and downs, but the only thing you can control is your attitude. And if you do that, in the end good things will happen.”

Throughout the final round, Woodland said, he told himself a million times, “I’ve got this.”

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