From basketball to golf. Gary Woodland quickly realised the five-player game was not for him after facing eventual NBA guard Kirk Hinrich as the U.S. Open champion reflected on his first major title.
Woodland showed nerves of steel to claim a memorable three-stroke victory at Pebble Beach, denying two-time reigning champion Brooks Koepka on Sunday.
The 35-year-old American – who was calm throughout amid Koepka’s surge – carded a two-under-par 69 to secure his maiden major.
Sunday’s result proved Woodland’s decision to swap college basketball in pursuit of a golf career was a wise one.
Woodland played D-II basketball at Washburn before transferring to play golf at Kansas in the early 2000s and the four-time PGA Tour winner recalled the moment he left the court for the greens.
On the court.
On the course. pic.twitter.com/jJ8sWRNp4o
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 17, 2019
“The moment really got forced on me,” Woodland told reporters. “I went to school, to Washburn to play basketball, and I always believed if basketball didn’t work out I could fall back on golf.
“And our first game we played Kansas at the University of Kansas. They were ranked number one in Division I, and we were ranked second in Division II. And that decision got forced on me really quickly. I was guarding Kirk Hinrich [who went on to play for the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks], and, like, okay, I need to find something else, because this ain’t gonna work. And that was my first game in college. I was a two-time State champion, All-State, blah, blah, blah, but that was a different level.
“And so when I transitioned to golf the next year, that was the first time in my life I’d ever focused solely on golf. It took me a little bit, but I got out here a year after school on the PGA Tour in 2009. It’s 11 years later now being out here. I don’t think my game is where it needs to be, but it’s getting there. I’m becoming a more complete player, I have more shots. I can rely more on my putting, rely on my short game. Things I couldn’t do even last year.
“We put a lot of work in this year in becoming a more complete player. I can play different golf courses. People probably growing up said U.S. Open wouldn’t suit me, because I’m a long hitter, I’m a bomber. Coming to Pebble Beach, on top of that, it’s a shorter golf course. And went out and proved, I think to everybody else, what I always believed, that I’m pretty good.”
Koepka – who closed within a stroke of Woodland in the final round – was looking to become the first man since Willie Anderson in the early 1900s to claim a U.S. Open three-peat.
However, Woodland remained composed to stop world number one Koepka and create his own history in California.
BANG. @GaryWoodland walks off a winner!
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 17, 2019
“It was nice,” Woodland said when asked what it was like to stop Koepka’s history bid. “Obviously Brooks got off to a great start. And you knew he was going to come out. The conditions, the wind was down a little bit early in the round. You could play more aggressive. The first couple of holes he could attack, and he did that.
“It was nice for me to make that birdie on two to give myself confidence to kind of slow down everything. And obviously executing the birdie on three, as well. But Brooks, he’s unbelievable. He lives for this moment. And obviously what he’s done the last couple of years is phenomenal.
“So it was nice. I told him when I got done he needs to slow down a little bit. All day he was knocking on the door. I was proud of myself to stay in my moment and control myself and not get too worried about what he was doing.”