Gary Woodland is big on hoops, so let’s put this in the language that will resonate with him.
On Sunday in the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the 35-year-old former Division II college basketball player canned the equivalent of at least three game-winning shots.
The daring and spectacular three-wood from the fairway at the par-five 14th that barely cleared a bunker and led to a birdie.
The white-knuckle chip with a 64-degree wedge from a tight lie at 17 to save par.
The final birdie putt on the 72nd hole that tracked to the cup on its entire 30-foot journey and dropped dead in the center, allowing Woodland to triumphantly raise his arms in celebration of his first major championship victory.
Later in the evening, with the trophy sitting at his elbow, Woodland admitted that he could never quite visualize that final moment.
“I hit a lot of game-winning shots on the basketball court when I was a kid,” he said. “I’ve always believed in myself.”
In golf, that belief took years to percolate, but remember the clubs on those tremendous shots: three-wood, wedge, putter. In other words, Woodland had it all: three-point range, a finger-roll layup and a slam dunk.
He had the mental toughness too to hold off a pair of the world’s greatest players, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose, applying pressure for nearly all of the round.
Woodland barely flinched, and he notched a $2.25-million victory that ranks up there with some of the most impressive in U.S. Open history.
In closing with a two-under-par 69 to beat Brooks Koepka by three strokes, Woodland finished at 13-under 271 — a total score that has only been bested in the U.S. Open by the 16 unders of Koepka (in 2017) and Rory McIlroy (2011).
Woodland proudly noted that his birdie putt on No. 18 pushed him past Tiger Woods’ 12-under total when he blitzed the field in the 2000 Open at Pebble.
The winning margin was three strokes, but it was hardly comfortable for Woodland until he had hit an iron into the middle of the fairway on Pebble’s iconic 18th hole while holding a two-shot lead.
Grinding to become the first player to win a third straight U.S. Open since the early 1900s, Koepka was within one stroke when Woodland stood on the 14th tee box.
“Brooks, he's unbelievable,” Woodland said. “He lives for this moment.”
But Koepka, the winner of four of the last nine majors, struggled to hit the fairway down the stretch and parred the last six holes.
With a 68, Koepka finished at 10 under. He became the first player in U.S. Open history to shoot four rounds in the 60s and not win.
Rose, who had a stunning 38 one-putts for the week, faded with a 74. He tied for third at seven under with San Diegan Xander Schauffele (67), Jon Rahm (68) and Chez Reavie (71).
Woodland, the winner of only three PGA Tour events in 244 starts before this tournament, found peace all week as he stared at the water from Pebble’s sandstone cliffs.
“I think from a mental standpoint, I was as good as I've ever been,” he said. “I never thought about what would happen if I won, what comes with it. I wanted to execute every shot. I wanted to stay in the moment.
“I knew I was playing good going in,” he added, “but I've been playing good going into a lot of tournaments before and haven't had the results I'd like. I was proud of myself to stay in it, to slow down a little bit, to slow my thinking down and really focus on what I was doing and not let my mind wander at all.”
Known for most of his career as a big hitter off the tee, Woodland proved to be multiskilled in one of the hardest of tests, even if Pebble Beach did play arguably softer than in any of the previous five U.S. Opens it hosted.
Woodland led the field in scrambling; he didn’t suffer a three-putt on Pebble’s sloping greens; and he tied a tournament record with only four bogeys over the 72 holes.
Rose was paired with his good friend over the final 36 holes and said, “He was unflappable.”
The three key shots Sunday were all memorable in their own right.
At the 14th — which plays as the hardest par-five hole on the PGA Tour during the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am — Woodland found the fairway and then debated with his caddie, Brennan Little, about playing it safe and laying up.
“I’ll give [Little] credit. He’s the one that told me to play aggressive,” Woodland said. “I’ve been telling him all week: ‘Let’s play aggressive lines. The game feels good.’ … It was one of the better swings I made all week. Him telling me to do that gave me confidence.”
The 3-wood from 263 yards cleared the bunker by only a few feet and settled on the green to give Woodland two putts to make birdie. Just ahead of him, Koepka only parred the hole after driving into the rough, and so Woodland walked to the 15th tee with a two-stroke lead cushion.
Woodland still had that margin when he missed the green into the fringe at 17 while Koepka was playing 18.
A putt would have been tricky for Woodland on the hourglass-shaped green, so he chose to clip his wedge clean off a tight lie. He laughingly recalled that as a young player, he would practice hitting off those lies on greens.
“Superintendents weren’t a huge fan of me,” he said.
His contact was perfect, and the ball stopped two feet from the cup. He made par.
The birdie at 18 was the capper, allowing Woodland to truly celebrate and pump his fists after he had been stoic all day.
With fellow players Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Matt Kuchar waiting to congratulate him as he emerged from the scoring trailer, Woodland looked a bit dazed, his eyes red and puffy. He could barely respond to anything with more than a nod.