News & Opinion

Team player finally has a team to call his own

Gary Woodland, the reigning U.S. Open champion, boosts Americans' power for next week’s Presidents Cup matches

Ernie Els had a tough chore rounding out his 2019 International team for the upcoming Presidents Cup, needing to make painful calls to South African countrymen Branden Grace and Erik van Rooyen to tell them that they’d be on the outside looking in when the matches begin at Royal Melbourne in Australia next week.

That comes with the territory. A captain’s journey is one with many tasks, and the general acceptance is that the toughest chore is making those last few phone calls to hopefuls who will, and won’t, be joining the mission.

Long-hitting Gary Woodland will be making his international team match-play debut next week for the U.S. in the Presidents Cup.

U.S. captain Tiger Woods had it much easier. Maybe that’s just because he is Tiger Woods. For one of his four wild-card picks, he needed only to locate a mirror. Tiger picked Tiger, probably even finding a few minutes to give him a pep talk. He chose Tony Finau, who was a shining light in an otherwise dismal U.S. performance in Paris at the 2018 Ryder Cup. In Patrick Reed, Woods not only chose a golfer whom he sometimes mentors, but a fire-starter whose business card reads Captain America. ’Nuff said. And then there was one more spot to fill. That was easy, too. Woods chose the long-hitting Kansan who prevailed at Pebble Beach in June’s U.S. Open, the grittiest major of them all.

Finally, at age 35, Gary Woodland has been invited to the party. (“It’s been a long road,” Woodland said. “I’ve tried to make a lot of teams and haven’t done it.”) Before he broke through to capture his first major in 2019, Woodland, as talented as he is, never had raised his hand quite high enough. In his mid-30s, and with 10 PGA Tour seasons beneath his white leather belt, he hardly would appear to be a rookie, but if he has to carry others’ luggage and sing a college fight song or two (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!), well, you sort of get the sense he’d be happy to do it.

The Presidents Cup has been a lopsided affair, and the U.S. (10-1-1) will be favored so heavily that only insomniacs and caffeine addicts may bother to tune in (Friday’s session airs until 2 a.m. ET). For Woodland, though, this represents a great opportunity. He can show that he could be an impactful asset when the U.S. tries to wrestle that “other” cup back from Europe at Whistling Straits in 2020.

“It’s special,” Woodland said regarding his pending trip Down Under. “I’m friends with all these guys. And you hear all these stories, and you hear about the team rooms, and it’s hard sometimes because you’re not part of that, and you want to be. … It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. Being part of sports my whole life, I’ve missed it.”

This is what Woodland, a four-time PGA Tour winner, brings to the table:

• Power. Since stepping out on Tour in 2009, only once has he finished a full season ranked worse than 13th in driving distance (18th in 2012). And he ranked second last season in total driving.

• Chemistry. He’s one of the most-liked players on the Tour. “Another good dude that all the players wanted on the team,” Woods said.

• Go-low ability. Match play is about making birdies, and Woodland ranked fifth on Tour in birdie average in 2018-19, making 4.38 per round.

• A sense of “team.” Having played baseball and basketball as a youth, Woodland knows what it means to help the “greater good” when it comes to team.

• Toughness. It’s a much-needed attribute in match play, finding the ability to summon something deep inside when you’re 2 down and running out of holes. He’s not short on grit.

Woodland was a heck of a baseball player in his teens, playing on a nationally-ranked travel team, and made his way into golf at the University of Kansas only after first playing college basketball at Division II Washburn University in his hometown of Topeka. Here’s a story that tells you something about Woodland’s toughness:

While playing basketball for Shawnee Heights High School, where he helped the team to two Kansas state titles, Woodland once was on the receiving end of a charge so hard that a knee into his throat collapsed his trachea. He struggled to breathe. A doctor examined him afterward and told Woodland that he needed to sit out at least two weeks. So, when, exactly, did Woodland play again? “Two nights later,” he said, retelling the story with a sly grin a few years ago.

The occasion of that interview was a third-round 85 at Augusta National in the 2012 Masters that sent Woodland careening from the edges of contention to heading home on Sunday. He was playing with an injured wrist that sent shards of pain through every movement in the swing. A PGA Tour trainer went onto the course to check Woodland and suggested that he call it a day and withdraw just before he was about to putt on the 10th green.

“Just let me gut it out,” Woodland said. “I’ve never quit anything in my life.”

Woodland’s father, Dan, recognizing the intense pain that his son was experiencing, fought back tears of pride while watching his son make that long final walk up the hill at Augusta National’s 18th hole that day. He knew people would see the poor score next to his son's name the next morning – 85 – but not know the story behind it. “He has the biggest heart of anyone you’ll ever meet,” Dan Woodland said.

For U.S. golf, an infusion of fresh blood can be a much-needed remedy for a team that has not neared its potential when facing Europe over the past two decades in the Ryder Cup – you know, that little 17-inch cup that everyone really cares about. Since 1994, the U.S. has not gone to battle in either cup without having some combination of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk – and many times, all three. As great as all three men have been as individual champions – Mickelson is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and the other two should join him – their talents never did fully translate very effectively to Ryder Cup competition. In the case of Woods and Mickelson, especially, they became targets that, upon defeat, always lifted Europe to heights that transcended a point.

Woods might make it to one more Ryder Cup next fall, but soon will come a day when the stage will be left for the Koepkas, Johnsons, Thomases, Finaus and Woodlands to command. Considering these all-time Ryder Cup records – Mickelson 18-22-7; Woods 13-21-3; Furyk 10-20-4 – can anyone argue that changes in lineup and marquee leadership wound not be something very beneficial?

Last weekend in South Florida, before departing for the Bahamas and this week’s Hero World Challenge, Woodland was one of five U.S. Presidents Cup players taking part in some better-ball matches, joining Woods, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. When Woods couldn’t make it on Sunday, Jordan Spieth stepped in. As “pickup” games go, that’s a pretty stout lineup. Woodland fits right in. Technically, he might be a cup rookie, but know this: He has a better handle than most on the dynamics of team.

“Because when you’re on a team, even if you’re not playing great, even if I’m not competing, you’re making sure you’re getting everybody else ready to play,” Woodland said. “Making sure you’re doing your part, whether it’s in the team room, or walking out with the guys, whether it’s my partner and I can say things to him that make him confident, pick him up when I need to, doing the right things at the right time, saying the right things …

“It’s a lot about reading people, but it’s about doing things for the greater good. You don’t do that out here [competing on the PGA Tour]. It’s all about taking care of ourselves. Next week, obviously we’re doing our own thing, but making sure everybody else is ready to go.”

It seems as if one guy is already there.