Fittingly, he all but clinched the 119th U.S. Open title with an all-but perfectly played shot.
From the far right side of the iconic 17th green at Pebble Beach, Gary Woodland pitched his ball over the saddle in the middle of the putting surface. It skidded once, then rolled out to less than a foot from the cup. After tapping-in for par, the 35-year old Kansan remained 12-under par.
“Fortunately, I had that same shot earlier in the week, so I had already executed it once,” he explained. “I was just trying to fly it over the ridge and take my medicine a little bit. A four wasn’t going to be the end of the world. But it came off beautifully. I even thought it had a chance to go in. That was such a key moment. Brooks (Koepka) has all the power in the world, so I knew he could get home in two on 18. He definitely had a chance to make eagle. So it was nice to make 3. And when I looked up at the board and saw that he had made par on the last, I had a little cushion.”
Indeed he did. Moments before, defending champion Koepka missed from maybe ten-feet for a closing birdie that would have taken him to 11-under par. Two shots clear with one-hole to play, Woodland had the margin for error he needed to get the job done. Which he completed with a final flourish. Holing from 35 feet for his seventeenth birdie of the week (he made only four bogeys) saw him round in 69, earned him a breathtaking $2.25million and, incidentally, made him only the fourth man in history to win America’s national championship with four rounds in the 60s.
Grand Slam events are never about money though. And this one was no exception. For Woodland, who had failed to win all seven of the events in which he had begun the final round with a lead, this was all about confirming the potential for greatness many felt he possessed. He did so with a display that contained only the odd wobble, even as the formidable figure of Koepka hove into early view by one-putting his way to four birdies in his first five holes.
“I played great,” was Koepka’s verdict on his closing 68. “It was awesome to come this close to going three in a row. Incredible. Anytime you can compete in a major is special and to have a chance to go back-to-back-to-back was pretty cool.
“In the end though, there was nothing I could do. Gary played a great four days. That's what you've got to do if you want to win a U.S. Open. Hats off to him, especially for the cool way he went out on 18, making that bomb. He deserves it. He’s worked hard and I'm happy for him.”
Indeed, many within the professional golf family will feel the same. Woodland is a man who has seen the darker side of life. Just over two years ago, his wife lost one of the twins she was carrying. It was a devastating loss. Happily, however, Jackson Woodland will turn two next Sunday and the Woodlands are expecting twin girls in August.
The sense of perspective that must come with such a tragic event may actually have helped Woodland during a final round in which he was caught only once, when playing partner Justin Rose made birdie at the opening hole. Thereafter, Woodland, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Phoenix Open, answered every call, parried every threat to his lead.
As former USPGA champion Paul Azinger said as the eventual champion walked up the first fairway, “Gary is going to have to be a mental giant.” Which he was. And much more. After finding nine of the 14 fairways he aimed at, Woodland hit 15 of the 18 greens in regulation figures. Impressive stuff on such a demanding course and under the pressure of a final round.
It was certainly superior to the play of the man playing alongside, Rose, the 2013 champion, struggled all week between tee and green and had relied upon some extraordinary work on and around the greens to maintain his challenge, But eventually it was too much. His short game ran out of gas midway through the back-nine when a run of three bogeys in four holes ended what had been a brave effort.
A little further down the leader board there was, as ever, much disappointment for those who came up short in one of golf’s four most important weeks of the year. One week on from his sparkling 61 to clinch the Canadian Open crown, Rory McIlroy never got going. A double-bogey at the second hole set him back and another at the 16th only underlined his surprising inadequacies. In the end, he was round in 72 and T-9 alongside Henrik Stenson and Chesson Hadley.
Still, few of the eventual also-rans were feeling the level of despair experienced by Adam Scott. Six-under par for the day and nine-under for the championship standing on the 13th tee, the former Masters champion blew his tee-shot miles right out-of-bounds. It was an inexplicably poor shot for one so naturally talented during a round in which he had hitherto done little wrong.
“I’m angry,” was Scott’s understandable reaction after dropping two more shots at the 16th and 17th to finish T-7. “I won’t be proud when I throw in the towel and don’t try. I want to win one of these so badly. I play so much consistent golf, but that’s kind of annoying. I’d almost rather miss every cut and win one tournament for the year if it was a major. So it's hard not to have an emotional verdict at the moment. I’m very pissed off with my finish.
“That one loose swing off 13 tee was pretty costly and three-putting 16 and 17 was not ideal. It was just a bad swing from nowhere. I don’t know if it was a lack of focus. It's hard. It's a strange game. My swing didn't feel anywhere near as good today as it did yesterday, but everything seemed to be going my way. I think I was three back at the time. So I wasn't thinking of anything. I was just playing and trying to keep things going in right direction.”
As for the other three Aussies plying their trades on day four, Jason Day was best. The former world number-one matched Woodland’s 69 and finished T-21 alongside Tiger Woods. Marc Leishman’s 72 was good enough to see him into a tie for 35th place with Dustin Johnson. And Cam Smith pulled up a subterranean T-72 after a closing 72.