News & Opinion

A worthy champ from an American classic

It couldn’t quite match 2008 in the drama department, and it didn’t have the same nose-to-nose, can-you-top-this factor that made 1999 so special, but the 119th U.S. Open was a keepsake with staying power. If the term “instant classic” is an oxymoron befitting of the millennium, so is the notion that America’s national championship can be difficult to play and still fun to watch.

Every action movie needs a little blood. This one favored the sound of a roar more than visions of gore, however, leaving us with yet another reason to wonder why the USGA can’t leave well enough alone, much less resist the urge to overcook its setup of the world’s finest golf courses.

Gary Woodland
Gary Woodland acknowledges the cheers for his 1st major championship, the 119th U.S. Open.

Pebble Beach was fabulous, even though it was smothered all week by that crotchety marine layer. The rough was mean, not malignant. Play moved somewhat swiftly, particularly considering the importance of the event, and the winner, Gary Woodland, was as worthy of a champion as you’ll find on the list of recent major titlists, grabbing the lead Friday night and fending off challenges from several of the game’s top players throughout the weekend.

You could watch five years’ worth of tournaments and not see a greater array of hole-outs, chip-ins and overall shot-making. Woodland was the lead contributor to this lengthy highlight reel, mixing his usual power with a short-game brilliance that we hadn’t seen in his 11-year PGA Tour career, but plenty of others added a touch of class to the festivities.

Brooks Koepka became the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s at a U.S. Open and not win, which is only slightly more remarkable than the fact that he lost by three. Koepka’s catastrophe-control instincts proved exceptionally handy on the second and eighth holes Sunday. Staring directly at a double bogey in each situation, the defending/defending champ’s physical strength and superb recovery skills allowed him to escape those potential disasters in a combined 1 over.

“He’s like a cockroach,” said Xander Schauffele, who tied for third. “He just won’t go away.”

Justin Rose found his way into 17 bunkers, by far the most of any contender, and fought through ragged ball-striking until deep into the final round. A bogey from the 13th fairway was the killer on a journey that left Rose five holes short of a second U.S. Open victory, an adventurous expedition highlighted by 34 one-putts over the first three days.

That Woodland repeatedly averted the advances of players currently first and third in the Official World Golf Ranking cannot be overstated. Much was made, and rightfully so, of his inability to hold a 54-hole lead in seven previous career attempts. And after he salvaged exquisite par saves at the 12th and 14th holes Saturday, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering how long those mini-miracles would keep falling from the sky.

Magicians rarely show up on U.S. Open Sunday. The host venue often has become brittle to the point of yielding very little, especially to those out of position off the tee, which compromises the suspense level and leaves us watching a bunch of guys miss 15-footers. Three of the most popular men ever to play this game – Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods – were geniuses at forging triumph out of trouble.

In golf, a four-letter word largely synonymous with failure, such a competitive trait never will grow old.

When Woodland arrived on the PGA Tour in 2009, his short game was abominable. He barely could get up and down from a bunker, as evidenced by his sand-save percentage (31.67) during that rookie season. And though he may never rank among the tour leaders in scrambling over an entire season, Woodland found that his work with British instructor Pete Cowen is what won him this U.S. Open.

Another English maestro, Phil Kenyon, recently began refining a notoriously unreliable putting stroke. “The PGA was one of the worst weeks I’ve had,” Woodland said of last month’s major, “but Phil told me it was the best he’s ever seen my stroke. We had a long talk about learning how to practice and changing some things with the routine, because the stroke itself was really good, and that’s given me a lot of confidence.”

What remains to be seen is whether the big Jayhawk can tote those good vibrations into competition on a semi-weekly basis and reinvent himself as one of the world’s top players. Or lend credence to the words of Fox analyst Curtis Strange, who referred to Woodland as “Brooks Koepka before there was a Brooks Koepka.”

The only 2019 putting statistic in which Woodland ranks highly is on attempts from 25 feet or farther (26th). He’s presently 183rd from inside 10 feet, which simply has to get better, in part because it will improve his overall scrambling (150th). Translation? The U.S. Open was a giant step, but there is still a ton of work to be done.

Only a fool, however, would think that Woodland simply got lucky. He slept on a lead for two nights and woke up to shoot a pair of closing 69s. He made just four bogeys all week. And when he had to call on his greatest asset, he jacked a 3-wood from 263 yards into the par-5 14th Sunday evening, one of the best shots ever to stop on the back of the fringe. It set up the birdie that gave Woodland some breathing room and ultimately subdue Brooks Cockroach.

Some terms of endearment are more endearing than others.

And while you don’t always need a signature moment on the 72nd hole to punctuate a terrific golf tournament, the champ obliged anyway, rolling in a birdie bomb to cap an unforgettable week for a guy whose prior accomplishments hadn’t proved to be the stuff of lasting memory.

They say that winning a U.S. Open changes your life. Maybe what Gary Woodland did will change the U.S. Open.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com