News & Opinion

Woodland’s next test: Learn to say ‘No’

DETROIT – Shortly before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, CBS Sports anchor Jim Nantz was asked to do a radio interview with local news station WJR-AM (760) to promote the upcoming Rocket Mortgage Classic. Nantz asked for a list of the early commitments. When he scanned the list, the top three names were Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland.

“I thought, Woodland is the No. 3?” Nantz said. “Holy smokes. He’s a good player, but he’s not a guy who sells tickets like Rickie. Then he goes and wins the Open. I should’ve flown to Vegas the minute I thought that and bet the house on Gary.”

Gary Woodland
As a major champion, U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland faces greater demands for his time.

Woodland’s three-stroke victory over Brooks Koepka two weeks ago has been a life-changing event. Jack Nicklaus, who knows a thing or 18 about winning major championships, may have summed it up best: “You’re not called, ‘Hey, kid,’ anymore in the locker room.”

For Woodland, his new status in an elite club of major winners hit home when he started his Wednesday pro-am round at Detroit Golf Club bright and early at 6:50 and said he was interrupted from deliberating on what type of shot to hit off the tee when he heard the starter announce him as the 2019 U.S. Open champion.

“I tell you, that doesn’t get old,” Woodland said of what also will be the first line of his obituary someday. “I love hearing it, but it’s one of those deals that playing this week the guys don’t care. They want to play this week. You’re out here to win. It’s time to move on.”

Following his victory, Woodland made the rounds in New York on a media tour, including an appearance on “Today,” where he surprised America’s new sweetheart, Amy Bockerstette. Woodland conceded that he enjoyed the experience, but it was exhausting.

“We shut everything down Thursday,” said Woodland, whose son, Jaxson, celebrated his second birthday on Saturday. “It was nice just to sit back, reflect, talk about the week before.”

Now, the biggest challenge may be to avoid a major hangover. Koepka and Jordan Spieth (for a while, anyway) made it look easy, but the post-major hangover is a real thing. Just ask 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia, who missed seven straight cuts in majors before a pedestrian T-52 finish at the U.S. Open. He’s still searching for a cure to what ails his game.

Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters champion, said he offered his congratulations to Woodland and then dispensed some advice.

“You’ve got to learn the word, ‘No,’ ” Watson said. “Six months will go by real fast, and if you don’t say ‘No,’ you’ll be tired.”

Watson speaks from experience. He went through his own slump, which included a winless 2013 campaign, after claiming his first major during the previous year.

“You dream about winning it, and then when you do, you’re like, Now what do I do?” Watson said. “You’ve got to pace yourself. You’re exhausted. You got pushed to the limit.”

Apparently, Watson wasn’t the only past champion to express to Woodland the importance of learning to say “No.” Fortunately, Woodland’s caddie, Brennan Little, has experience from being on the bag for Mike Weir when he won the 2003 Masters as does Woodland’s agent, Mark Steinberg, who knows the drill from his other client, one Tiger Woods, well enough to earn the nickname “Dr. No.”

“Management of my time is the biggest deal,” Woodland said. “Hopefully I’ll rely on making Steinberg the bad guy.”

Woodland is well liked on Tour, and it’s not hard to imagine him struggling with the new demands for his time. (Prepare for an onslaught of flags to autograph, Gary.) He got a sampling of his newfound fame on Tuesday. He figured that he signed his name more than ever and learned a valuable lesson about blocking out time to do so.

“That’s why I only played nine holes,” Woodland said. “I ended up signing a little bit more than I was anticipating.”

Too often, there is a false assumption that once a player breaks through to win a major, the floodgates will open. Such expectations have been heaped on Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Justin Thomas, who all remain stuck at one major. So is Justin Rose, who played alongside Woodland in the final group on Sunday at Pebble Beach and blew a golden opportunity to separate from the pack and claim his second major title. Even Woods went almost 11 years until his most recent major, at the Masters in April.

Woodland had been trending in the right direction, holding the 36-hole lead at the 2018 PGA Championship before finishing T-6 and recording another top 10 at Bethpage in May (T-8). But here’s the thing: those represent his only top-10 finishes in a major in 30 starts before hoisting his national championship’s trophy. He had never finished better than T-23 in a U.S. Open, and his record at the Masters is abysmal: three missed cuts and a withdrawal in seven starts and a career-best T-24.

Woodland has improved his putting since he started working with putting whisperer Phil Kenyon at last year’s British Open, but he still ranks a pedestrian 115th in strokes gained putting. Can he replicate the short-game magic that he displayed at Pebble Beach? Fellow Kenyon students Henrik Stenson and Francesco Molinari, both major champions, have not.

Woodland didn’t blink when Koepka charged with a burst of front-nine birdies, but will he have the mettle to pull off shots like his 263-yard 5-wood at the par-5 14th that set up his pivotal birdie or the delicate touch to chip from the green at No. 17? Johnson and fellow Butch Harmon student Jimmy Walker haven’t been able to make the stars align for major No. 2. Woodland knows the roll call of the one-time major club is lengthy – 138, to be exact – while the list of two-time champs numbers 82. He sounds hungry for more.

“My game’s in a situation where it’s becoming more complete, but I’ve got to continue to improve,” Woodland said. “Never be satisfied and continue to improve.”

Not a bad mantra to recite in pursuit of greater glory. It’s almost as good as a lifetime of first-tee announcers proclaiming him as the 2019 U.S. Open champion. As Woodland quickly learned, that never will get old.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak