News & Opinion

In nod to Amy, Woodland wins U.S. Open

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Amy was right. Isn’t she always?

Amy is the girl who changed Gary Woodland’s life when she joined him to play TPC Scottsdale’s par-3 16th hole during a Phoenix Open practice round earlier this year.

She’s the girl who changed all of our lives, the millions of us who watched the video of her walking with a compassionate Woodland, hitting a bunker shot and making the biggest putt of her life for an amazing par after telling her playmate, your new 2019 U.S. Open champion, “I’ve got this.”

Saturday afternoon, Amy Bockerstette returned serve on the support she’d gotten from her favorite golfer, suddenly the 54-hole U.S. Open leader at Pebble Beach. “You’ve got this!” she tweeted at Woodland.

Gary Woodland USGA 2019 U.S. Open
Gary Woodland, holding the U.S. Open trophy late Sunday at Pebble Beach, proves superfan Amy Bockerstette correct in winning his first major title.

Amy was right again. This Open got dicey during the middle of the round. Brooks Koepka was hunting history and a third straight Open title, and Justin Rose was hanging in gamely with one par-saving putt after another. Woodland, a Kansas native who played Division II college basketball before switching to golf and transferring to Kansas, had to sweat out the middle of the round when he bogeyed the ninth and the 12th holes and saw his lead shrink to one.

Woodland faced down three huge shots. Despite out of bounds lurking dangerously on the right, Woodland stayed aggressive and decided to hit 3-wood to the par-5 14th hole. You’ve got this! His ball narrowly cleared the front bunker and bounced into the left fringe. From there, he stabbed a chip shot to 4 feet and made a key birdie putt to cushion his lead to two.

The pin was back left at the par-3 17th hole, one of golf’s most famous. Woodland’s tee ball strayed way right, catching the very right corner of the putting surface, near the fringe. He had 90 feet to the pin, over a precarious ridge from a tight lie, and he had to figure that Koepka would birdie the par-5 18th and cut the lead to one. It wasn’t puttable, due to the green’s hourglass shape, so Woodland had to pitch it. You’ve got this! Woodland delicately trapped a sand-wedge shot that took one big bounce, one small bounce and skidded to a stop after peeking at the hole. It was the shot of a lifetime, the shot of this Open.

“I had that same shot earlier in the week, and I made par then, too,” Woodland said later. “Pulling off the shot at 14 gave me the confidence to execute the chip at 17. After the shot at 14, I felt better – better than I’ve felt on a golf course for a long, long time.

Fox Sports analyst Paul Azinger nailed the call on Woodland’s signature shot of this Open at the 17th. “He’ll remember this for the rest of his life,” Azinger said.

Koepka didn’t birdie the 18th, though, so Woodland cruised safely to the final green in three shots, if it’s ever possible to “cruise” Pebble Beach’s 18th hole with the Pacific Ocean and the rocks to the left and the houses and out of bounds to the right.

All he had to do was three-putt for the victory. You’ve got this! Woodland rolled the ball center-cut into the hole. The stroke meant Woodland finished with a three-shot edge over Koepka and bettered Tiger Woods’ 2000 U.S. Open winning score at Pebble Beach by one (scores).

When the putt dropped, Woodland’s father, Dan, watching from behind the green, gleefully exclaimed, “Boom!” Then the whole Woodland family got into the celebration with hugs. As Father’s Day presents go, this one was better than most.

It works for Gary Woodland, 35, too. His son, Jaxson, turns 2 next week, and Dad can’t wait for that birthday party. Woodland’s wife, Gabby, is pregnant with identical twin girls due in August. “I can’t wait to get home and hug my son,” Woodland said. He phoned his wife, who stayed home in Delray Beach, Fla, on his way to the winner’s news conference Sunday night. “She always goes to bed by 8,” Woodland said. “I told her it was a bigger surprise that she was still awake than that I won.”

Winning the Open is “a special moment,” he said, adding, “I can’t wait to get home and share this with everyone.”

The first major championship of Woodland’s career, which goes on his resume with three other PGA Tour victories, is the end result of a lot of work. It goes back to his days at a hot-shot, all-star prep basketball player. He played at Washburn University, a Division II school, and the team faced No. 1-ranked Kansas in the season opener. One game into his college career, he made a big decision.

“It was forced on me pretty quickly,” Woodland said with a laugh. “I was guarding Kirk Hinrich and I was like, OK, I need to find something else to do; this ain’t gonna work. I was all-state, blah-blah-blah, but this was a different level.”

Golf has been a game-improvement journey for him ever since. He took a big step forward when he began working with coach Butch Harmon on his swing. The final sequence fell into place with Pete Cowen, who helped Woodland bring his short game and his putting up to PGA Tour levels.

Woodland led the U.S. Open field in greens hit in regulation. His ball-striking has been among the best on tour for several years. He was fourth in distance, averaging just over 316 yards per drive, and always has wielded length as a weapon on the golf course. He typically has ranked fairly low in the putting and chipping categories, however, and solidifying that part of his game with Cowen freed him up mentally to relax and not worry so much about mis-hit shots.

Making putts is a game-changer, and to win a U.S. Open, that skill is a must. Woodland’s putter was a big reason why he finally won the big one. He holed a monster putt in Saturday’s third round at the par-5 14th hole. After struggling through the rough, his approach shot stopped near the top of the green’s false front – and stayed there. It was a break on the order of Fred Couples’ ball stopping on the bank at Rae’s Creek on No. 12 in the 1992 Masters.

That break might not have meant so much if Woodland hadn’t poured in the putt, leaving the flagstick in, for a wild par that looked as if it might turn into a double bogey. Those two strokes saved with that putt were crucial.

He blunted the charge behind him at the start of the final round by making birdie putts at the second and third holes. Then there was the short putt at the 14th hole after his heroic 3-wood shot and the short chip.

It was 3½ feet, maybe, for birdie. With the Open on the line, with Koepka pressuring him from the group ahead, Woodland had no gimme birdie. He calmly stroked it in. That birdie widened his lead to a much-safer two shots.

Woodland has something more than just better technique and improved confidence in his putting. He has an athlete’s swagger. He had it when he was a sharpshooting basketball guard who liked to talk trash to opponents and showboat a little after pouring in another three-point shot. He still has it, and Sunday he walked the walk like never before.

That play at the 14th hole was brash and oozing with confidence. “It would’ve been pretty easy to lay up there,” Woodland conceded. My caddie [Brennan Little] and I talked about that. He told me to play aggressive. He said, ‘Let’s go; let’s hit 3-wood.’ It was one of the better swings I made all week, and it ended up in a perfect spot. That birdie separated me a little bit from Brooks.”

The old Gary Woodland might have faltered over the putt ,but not the 2019 version. That’s why he’s the U.S. Open champion now. And still Amy’s hero, of course.

“She’s meant everything for me from a mental standpoint,” Woodland said. “The world needs more of her in it. Her attitude, her love for life, her love for the game and her positive energy is so contagious.”

Amy sent Woodland a video when he became ill and withdrew from the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this year. She also sent him a video in which she sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

“Amy’s attitude is phenomenal,” he said. “Life’s not always going to be bells and whistles. There are going to be bad things and ups and downs, the only thing you can control is your attitude. If you do that, good things will happen. Amy kept telling me, ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got this,’ and I told myself that a million times today.”

It worked. Woodland used his big, brawny hand to carefully plunk the U.S. Open trophy on the desk when he sat down in the media center for his news conference. He gave the trophy an admiring glance before he looked around the room.

It’s his now, at least for a year. Amy was right. He’s got this!

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle