The old Gary Woodland came face-to-face with the new Gary Woodland in the fairway of Pebble Beach’s brutal 14th. It’s a nasty par-five dogleg-right stretching 580 yards, that has broken many hearts.
The old Woodland was the big hitter who preferred to beat a course into submission. The new one was the golfer who worked long and hard to add a soft-touch short game to all that power. And now he was faced with a decision, the 2019 U.S. Open hanging in the balance. With his playing partner,
Justin Rose, having fallen away, he now led by one over the relentless Brooks Koepka, in the twosome just ahead, applying crushing pressure. Woodland was at his tee shot in the 14th fairway, facing a decision: Does he power his ball and go for the green, risking all that that entails, or does he take the safer option — finesse his way home with a layup and a wedge? Woodland wasn’t on the debate team. “The idea,” he said, “was to play for the win.”
Accordingly, he took his three wood and slugged it 263 yards to the green, got his birdie and a two-stroke lead.
He came to another crisis point at the par-three 17th, with its long, skinny hourglass green. His five-iron tee shot landed far to the right. The flag was 90 feet away, on the left. His problem was the skinny neck and the hump he had to go over. How to putt that one? Answer: Don’t bother. He took
his 64-degree wedge, delicately flipped the ball over the hump and to within three feet. “It’s not one I want over,” he said. He saved his par and his two-shot lead on Koepka, who couldn’t squeeze another birdie out of Pebble.
Koepka, starting from four behind, blasted off on his final round, birdieing Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5. But his last birdie was back at the 11th. And then he’d bogeyed 12 and was stuck at three under and fighting. He parred in for the three-under 69 and a 10-under 274. His bid for a historic third straight U.S. Open rested there, but not comfortably.
Woodland started the last round with a one-stroke lead on Justin Rose, birdied the second and third, then fell back to even par for the day with bogeys at the ninth and 12th. That brought him to the needed heroics at 14 and 17.
Then Woodland had another chance to demonstrate the new Woodland.
At Pebble’s classical par-five 18th, with the luxury of needing only a bogey to win, he restrained himself and hit a safe iron off the tee. At the 14th he had boldly gone for the green. This time, he prudently laid up with his second, then pitched safely on, 30 feet to the right. And ignoring the comfort of a big cushion, he made the 30-footer for a birdie, a 69 and a 13-under 271, taking his first major by three with the lowest 72-hole score in six U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach.
“I think from a mental standpoint, I was as good as I’ve ever been,” Woodland said. “I never let myself get ahead of myself. 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 wanted to stay within myself.”
On the clutch shot at the 14th: “It would have been pretty easy to lay up there. It was one of the better swings I made all week. That birdie there separated me a little bit from Brooks and gave me a little cushion.” On the clutch shot at the 17th: “Wasn’t too many options. If I putted it, I don’t think I could have got within 20 feet. Fortunately … it came off perfectly.”
Justin Rose, starting the final round just a shot behind, tied Woodland with a birdie at the first, then saw his hopes bleed away in four bogeys over an eight-hole stretch from No. 8. He shot 74 and tied for third, six behind. “I was right in the tournament,” Rose said, “and then just kept missing in the wrong spot.” Koepka was trying to become only the second three-time U.S. Open winner since Willie Anderson in the early 1900s and instead became the only man to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds of the U.S. Open and not win. “I played great,” Koepka said. “Nothing I could do. I gave it my all. And sometimes, no matter how good your ‘good’ is, it isn’t there.”
Woodland could classify as a surprise winner, given his lackluster play in other U.S. Opens. But he didn’t surprise himself.
“We put a lot of work in this year in becoming a more complete player,” he said. “People probably said the U.S. Open wouldn’t suit me, because I’m a long hitter, I’m a bomber. And I went out and proved, I think to everybody else, what I always believed — that I’m pretty good.”
The final leaders: Gary Woodland 69–271, Brooks Koepka 68–274, Xander Schauffele 67–277, Jon Rahm 68–277, Chez Reavie 71–277, Justin Rose 74–277.