U.S. Open: Long-Driving Gary Woodland Putts His Way to Victory

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland, a college basketball player turned professional golfer, prevailed by three strokes in the 119th United States Open at Pebble Beach on Sunday.

Woodland, who came into the tournament 0 for 30 in the majors, closed with a two-under-par 69 and a 72-hole total of 13-under 271 to beat Brooks Koepka by three strokes. After holding the 54-hole lead for the first time in a major, Woodland came out on a cool, overcast afternoon and staved off challenges from three major winners: Koepka, Justin Rose and Adam Scott, who have spent a combined 37 weeks at the top of the men’s world rankings.

Koepka, the two-time defending champion and world No. 1, made pars on the last six holes to post a 68 and fall just short in his bid to become the first since William Anderson in 1905 to win three consecutive U.S. Opens. The 29-year-old Koepka had won four of his previous eight major starts, including the P.G.A. Championship at Bethpage Black on Long Island last month. He has finished first or second in his last four major starts, a streak of success that conjures comparisons to Tiger Woods in the early aughts when he won six of 10 major starts in one stretch.

ImageKoepka made a big charge on Sunday, but he ultimately could not catch Woodland.
Koepka made a big charge on Sunday, but he ultimately could not catch Woodland.CreditMichael Madrid/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“Played aggressive, and it paid off,” Woodland said, adding, “Didn’t ever let myself think the tournament was over.”

Xander Schauffele shot a 67 to share third with Jon Rahm (68), Chez Reavie (71) and Rose (74) at seven under. Scott, who made an early charge with an eagle and two birdies in a front-nine 31, cooled off on the final nine and settled for a 68 and a tie for seventh, at six under, with the 2010 British Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen (72).

Rose, the 2013 champion, pulled even with Woodland with an opening birdie, but he bogeyed the second. He could not keep pace with Woodland, who played the first eight holes in two under to keep a charging Koepka at bay. Koepka began the day four strokes behind Woodland, who was winless the previous seven times he held the 54-hole lead, and, aided by eight one-putt greens, played the first 11 holes in four under par to pull to a single stroke behind Woodland.

“All right, man, we’ve got a ballgame now,” Koepka said he was thinking. But despite shooting in the 60s all four rounds, Koepka could not keep up with Woodland, whose 69 equaled his highest score of the week.

“Props to him for the way he hung in there,” Koepka said.

Woodland, who played basketball at Division II Washburn before transferring to Kansas for golf, said he learned how to control his adrenaline, contain his emotions and play within himself while paired with Woods in the final round of last year’s P.G.A. Championship. Woods ended up finishing second to Koepka, four strokes ahead of Woodland, whose tie for sixth was his best showing in a major until Sunday.

“I don’t know if I spent any time on a putting green when I was a kid,” Woodland said with a laugh. “I was too busy hitting driver.”CreditHarry How/Getty Images

Woods, 43, a three-time champion, closed with a 69 to finish tied for 21st at two under.

Woodland, a native Kansan, confessed Saturday that he never stood over the ball on practice greens as a youngster pretending he was putting to win his national championship.

“I don’t know if I spent any time on a putting green when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh. “I was too busy hitting driver.”

Woodland, who had three PGA Tour victories in his first 10 years as a pro, is known as one of the game’s longest hitters. Over the past five seasons, he has ranked seventh to 13th on the tour in driving distance. He still has the eye-popping power, as he demonstrated on Sunday on the 582-yard par-5 14th when he found the fairway with a 314-yard drive and, using a 5-wood, sent his second shot into the rough, just past pin-high.

The chip shot was not easy, but Woodland pulled it off with ease, hitting to 3 feet and then making the birdie putt. For all his length off the tee, the key to his success this week was his play in and around the greens. After his tee shot landed on the fringe, 91 feet from the cup on the par-3 17th, Woodland chipped to 2 feet to save par. He then sank a 30-footer for birdie at No. 18 to punctuate a performance in which he scattered only four bogeys over 72 holes.

“I have a short game now I can rely on,” Woodland said. “I don’t have to focus on ball striking.”

Woodland watched golf instructional videos as a toddler and started hitting balls on the range beside his father, Dan, who had also been a multisport high-school star, when he was not much older than his own son, Jaxson, who will turn 2 this month. Woodland’s wife, Gabby, is expecting twin daughters in August, so Father’s Day had taken on a whole new meaning for Woodland even before he secured the biggest win of his career. “It’s special,” he said.

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