Gary Woodland may not be the first name that springs to mind when asked to name the last 10 major winners in golf, but the 35-year-old American clinched the 2019 US Open at one of the more famous venues in the sport, Pebble Beach, with record numbers.
Despite going into the final round with a one-shot lead over Justin Rose (four strokes ahead of the winner of the previous two US Opens, and back-to-back PGA Championships, Brooks Koepka), few thought he could pull off victory, particularly as the Kansas native had not before been in the top 20 of any golf major.
After all, had things gone slightly different earlier in his life, he could be playing basketball against LeBron James, Steph Curry and James Harden after winning a scholarship as a teenager.
And yet golf got the nod, as did Woodland as a genuine contender for future honours after his US Open victory propelled him up to 16th in the world rankings.
The start of next year will have to see the 35-year-old retain a level consistency if he is to challenge for a Ryder Cup place, but he insists it is a challenge he’s ready for…
RSNG Was there a time when you felt that you might not go into golf as a professional player?
GARY WOODLAND, PRO GOLFER ‘When I was 16 and in college, I was playing golf, baseball and basketball. I was playing 100 games in a season of baseball and after speaking to me, my Dad convinced me that if I was going to be playing any sport professionally, I had to cut down the time I was spending across a few different pursuits and really get serious about one of them.’
‘That meant that I had to make a decision between golf and baseball, and maybe it was coincidence that the choice came at the end of the summer, a summer where I had just played so much baseball and that helped me make my mind up. So, I thought that I would move forward with golf.’
‘The only thing is that where I grew up in Kansas, because of the bad weather most of the time during the winter, you can’t play golf. So that’s where the concentration on basketball came in and to be honest, it really began to get better for me, and I had a good high school run with it.’
‘However, during my senior year in high school, I switched back to golf again – I won five times that year and that made me think that I should be focusing on it. Golf was probably the least popular sport out of all of my friends – they were playing the other three big sports, baseball, basketball and football – but I knew I had to follow my heart.’
‘You can always do better, play better and achieve more, but if you aren’t happy or comfortable with your game, you won’t go forward’
RSNG So, is there a chance that had things been a little different, could we be seeing Gary Woodland in the NBA instead of on the PGA?
GW ‘The funny thing is that I wasn’t focusing more on golf than I was at basketball, but I was playing just as well on the course than I was on the court – if not better.’
‘The coach who had brought me to KU had told me he would have a golf scholarship waiting right there for me. He did and it all began to take shape from there.’
RSNG How has that carried into your professional career?
GW ‘That experience of slowly building and progressing to where I want to be is exactly the essence of what makes a professional athlete. If you have things in your history that you can call upon, it makes you feel a lot better about the situations that are happening in your current life.’
‘I think I have been progressing to a level which I am happy with. You can always do better, play better and achieve more, but if you aren’t happy or comfortable with your game or your progress, you won’t go forward.
‘With regards to the other sports – certainly the ones that I had experience of playing in my younger days, those team sports are the ones that you have to win in head to head matches, even when you’re not playing well.’
‘I have been able to win on the PGA Tour without playing my best golf and that’s what playing other sports taught me.’
‘Even though I have won a major I know that my game isn’t totally where I want it to be’
RSNG You won six times as an amateur and you’ve got three PGA Tour wins and a major. After winning that first pro event in 2011, you had to wait almost two-and-a-half years for a second. How does that feel in between when the waiting time increases?
GW ‘I must say, early on in my career I thought I had got the hang of winning – as you might do when you win so early after turning professional. You can fall into that trap of thinking things are going to come easy, and I think that’s natural, because as a sportsperson, you work on confidence.’
‘When I won for the second time in 2013 at the Barracuda Championship, I almost felt that I was in control and that when I wanted to win or needed to, I could turn it on and off like a tap.’
‘I realise now I was falling into the trap of overconfidence, or arrogance, or whatever you want to call it.’
‘Ultimately, that the longer a period without winning goes on, the more you put the weight on your own shoulders. While it became a grind both mentally and physically, the feeling of getting another win was great.’
RSNG Isn’t it better to have an appreciation for winning when you have really had to fight for it?
GW ‘Of course, and when you see the greatest in their generation winning over 80 times and countless majors, that makes you realise how good these guys are – like Tiger.’
‘It’s far from easy to win events with so many good players on the tour and when you do win, you so much more appreciation. But also, when you’re not winning, you also take a step back and think that there are more players than just you who are struggling.’
RSNG So, when you win the US Open and in doing so match a 114-year-old record, what does that do to your confidence?
GW ‘I mean, that was just an unbelievable feeling and it was so hard to put into words what it actually meant to me at the time. When you work so hard at something for so long and it finally pays off by winning one of the biggest tournaments in your sport, it’s mind-blowing. But you do recognise the value of it, and you realise that nothing good ever comes easy; nor will it the next time you play either.’
‘It was a situation that I obviously hadn’t been in before, but I wasn’t too nervous during the final round because I knew that if I allowed myself to think about what I was about to do, it could be snatched away from me straight away.’
‘I didn’t let it enter my mind… the magnitude of what was happening until that final putt went in, and what everyone saw was just an outpouring of relief.’
‘But the funny thing is, even though I have won a major – and I know not too many can say that, although there are so many great players in golf – I know that my game isn’t totally where I want it to be. I am constantly working on it and I will do so until the moment where I am totally satisfied. Although, that day may never come, because you should never be totally satisfied – you can always do better.’
‘Whatever comes next… I want to win, but I’m easy. I know this is a difficult thing and what happens, happens.’
WHAT NEXT? If you missed our exclusive interview with Shane Lowry, winner of the 2019 Open Championship, then put that right, now!
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