MELBOURNE — The last time Gary Woodland competed in a truly authentic team event was the 2003 NCAA Division II basketball tournament for Washburn University. Since then he has pined for the chance to revel in a team atmosphere again, something golf doesn’t afford except on two occasions, including this week’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
To say that the reigning U.S. Open champion has been enjoying the experience of playing in his first Presidents Cup—even before the first tee shot—is an understatement.
“It’s been awesome. You know, everything you dreamed it to be,” said Woodland, 35, who was selected by Tiger Woods as one of four American captain’s picks. “I’m an old guy, but I’m a rookie out here, so trying to avoid the hazing from Kuch [Matt Kuchar] and some other guys trying to haze me because I’m a little bit older than them. … So that part’s been interesting. But it’s been fun.”
Hazing the chiseled Woodland wouldn’t seem like such a great idea, but, then, Kuchar is an incorrigible prankster who teamed with Woodland in the 2011 World Cup in China, which they won. And Woodland gets it. He played on a nationally ranked traveling baseball team in his teens (he was a shortstop and pitcher and batted cleanup) and moved onto golf at the University of Kansas after two years at Washburn.
So, um, what kind of hazing?
“Carrying bags, unpacking bags, little needless stuff,” Woodland, ever smiling, said. “When we get back home, I’ll take care of Kuch myself. I can take care of him.”
That sounded ominous. In reply, the recalcitrant Kuchar could only say that, “There’s going to be more to come for sure.”
First, Woodland wants to take care of helping the American team beat the International side for the 11th time in 13 meetings. He’ll start out Thursday in the opening session playing alongside Dustin Johnson in the final four-ball match. It will be a veritable bash brothers pairing, the Americans facing South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer of Mexico.
Woodland is one of five U.S. rookies along with Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele. He comes to Royal Melbourne feeling good about his game, having played the final 36 holes of the Zozo Championship in Japan alongside Woods, the eventual winner. His fifth-place performance, along with the U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach, cemented his place on the squad. He finished T-7 Saturday at Woods’ unofficial invitational, the Hero World Challenge.
“I’m back to that level,” he said, referring to his form when he held off two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka to win his first major title in June at Pebble Beach. “Yeah, the game has been nice. I’m happy with it.”
He’s happier having the kind of game that should be beneficial to assisting his teammates. He likes the sound of that word—teammates.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a team sport. You know, the stuff that I enjoy is the stuff I miss—the bus rides the team had, hanging in the team room,” Woodland said. “That’s stuff, that’s the fun when you practice. I’m not a huge practice-round guy, but the last two days have been great.”
Ranked 17th in the world, Woodland prepared for this week by joining in some better-ball matches with teammates Woods, Cantlay, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler in and around Jupiter, Fla. That got his juices flowing as a player and as a part of the bigger initiative. He wants to play well, but at the same time he also wants to be a supportive part of the collective.
“Gary was made for this,” said Zach Johnson, one of three U.S. assistant captains. “He knows what it means to be a part of a team situation, so he just seems so comfortable. And he knows how to be around everyone else because of that, so he’s like Stricks [assistant captain Steve Stricker]. Everybody likes him.”
"I see Gary playing well over here," Fowler said. "He’s great at controlling ball flight. That’s what this golf course asks for."
Going back to his final game with Washburn, Woodland doesn’t remember much. He only knows it didn’t end well. “We lost at the last second. I don’t remember how I played, but I remember losing. That part was pretty sad,” he said.
Obviously, Woodland is hoping for a different outcome this week for himself and his fellow Americans, who are heavily favored to win for an eighth straight time.
“I’m having a great time out there. And that’s, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Well, that and getting the ‘W.’ When you compete, especially as part of a team, you want to do everything you can to be successful, whatever that is, whether it’s in your play or in supporting the guys, and that’s my attitude this week. I’m excited about this weekend.”
After that, there will be only one thing left to do. Deal with Matt Kuchar.