ST. LOUIS — The first PGA Tour event Gary Woodland ever attended was the Sony Open in Hawaii in 2009. He wasn’t there as a fan. He was playing in it.
Growing up in Topeka, Kan., where Woodland attended Washburn University to play Division II basketball before transferring to the University of Kansas to focus on golf, there was never a tour event close enough.
This week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive is about a four-hour drive from Woodland’s hometown. “I have a million friends and family out here, which is really cool,” he said, before reducing the exaggeration to roughly 100 actually rooting him on.
“We’re kind of in enemy territory down here in Missouri,” Woodland said, “We're big Kansas people, but the fans were nice to me today.”
He gave them plenty to cheer about. Woodland made seven birdies over his final 11 holes to shoot six-under 64 and take a one-shot lead over Rickie Fowler after Thursday’s first round.
While the score matches his best round of the year it wasn’t exactly predictable. In 27 previous majors, Woodland has eight missed cuts, a WD and zero top-10s. His best result was a tie for 12th, at the 2011 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club and the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon.
But it was at this year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie where Woodland started working with putting guru Phil Kenyon and began to turn around the part of the game that has given him the most fits. On Tuesday of this week, he added a SuperStroke grip to his putter, and voila.
“I was trying to fight it the last couple weeks and trying to feel it, feel it, and we put the SuperStroke grip on on Tuesday and Phil said, Don’t change anything,” Woodland said. “I didn’t have to think anymore, I literally grab the putter and go.
“It helps me release the club different. I’ve been releasing with my hands and this helps me release it more down the line, which has been huge.”
Just as big were the number of lengthy putts he made on the slow, chewy greens late in the day at Bellerive. Woodland sank more than 152 feet of putts on the day, and led the field in strokes gained/putting. He also took just 14 putts over his final 11 holes, which included a 45-footer on 11 and 23-footers on 12 and 16.
Now Woodland can only hope for the same result as one of Kenyon’s other pupils. The same week they started working together, Francesco Molinari went on to win the Open.