When Gary Woodland flew to New York the day after winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach this past Father’s Day, he was accompanied by Craig Annis, one of the USGA’s communications executives. Annis’ job was to shepherd Woodland through a busy tour—mostly to non-sports outlets, many of whom wanted to focus on Amy Bockerstette, the young woman with Down syndrome who had become a social-media sensation and part of Woodland’s life in January.
Most of the golf world knew the story already. Woodland, as the defending champion at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, had been asked to play a hole with Bockerstette during a Tuesday practice round. The idea had come from Special Olympics Scottsdale, which wanted to promote the story of a local athlete who had overcome great challenges to succeed.
Bockerstette was 20 and a freshman at Paradise Valley Community College, where she had received a scholarship to play on the golf team. After the PGA Tour gave Woodland the history on Bockerstette’s journey, he was more than willing to take part.
“I thought it would be fun,” he says. “I had no idea it would be a life-changing event for me.”
With thousands of fans surrounding the circus tent that is the TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole, Woodland and his buddy Matt Kuchar teed it up with Bockerstette. She hit a solid tee shot that drifted right into a greenside bunker.
“You could see right away that she could play,” Woodland says today. “She’s got a good swing.”
Even so, Woodland was concerned when he saw where Bockerstette’s ball had ended up. “It wasn’t an easy shot,” he says. “I was a little concerned that she might struggle to get it out and feel embarrassed with all those people watching, so I offered to toss it out and let her play from there. She just looked at me and said, ‘I got this.’ ”
Woodland didn’t realize it right away, but that was the life-changing moment. Three words.
Bockerstette dug her feet into the sand and splashed the ball out to eight feet from the cup. “There was no luck involved, she just hit a really good shot,” Woodland says. He pauses for a moment, thinking back. “I knew—just knew—she was going to make the putt.”
Which she did. The video of the whole thing went viral almost instantly.
That night, Woodland had dinner with fellow pro Harold Varner III.
“He was still very emotional about the whole thing, hours later,” Varner says. “He said to me, ‘The world needs more of Amy. She should be an inspiration for so many people. She’s already an inspiration for me.’ ”
Woodland was delighted after the Open win when told that “The Today Show” was flying Amy and her parents to New York, and they were going to appear on the show together the next morning. Woodland hadn’t seen Amy since Scottsdale, although they had stayed in touch and had FaceTimed after the win. For Amy, Gary’s presence on the show was to be a surprise.
Woodland told Annis there was one thing he had to do for him before the show. “He insisted I cancel or push back his next appearance,” Annis says. “He didn’t care what it was. He said, ‘I’m not just going to do a hit-and-be-gone TV appearance with her. I want to spend time with her—no cameras. This is important to me.’ ” Annis made the change. “I spent two days with him,” Annis says. “And I can honestly tell you I wasn’t surprised by that even a little bit. That’s just who he is.”
• • •
A POPULAR WIN FOR A POPULAR PLAYER
That’s what they say about Gary Woodland in the locker room. There’s nothing complicated about him, no hidden agendas.
“He’s just the kind of guy who likes to hang out, tell stories, give people a hard time, and have people give him a hard time,” Brandt Snedeker says. “He’ll be a great Ryder Cupper because you can play him with anyone on the team and they’ll be happy to partner with him.”
Brooks Koepka, the runner-up to Woodland at Pebble Beach, smiles when asked about him: “He’s just a good dude. If I couldn’t win, I’m thrilled he won. I think everyone felt that way.”
Players often refer to certain wins as “popular in the locker room.” Woodland’s win at Pebble Beach was overwhelmingly popular.
“He’s just a really good hang-out guy,” Charley Hoffman says. “It almost sounds corny, but he makes you feel better about yourself just being around him. He takes his golf seriously, but not himself.”
“Gary’s cool, simple as that,” Justin Thomas says. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I think he brings out the good side in me. It’s just the way he is—all the time.”
Woodland smiles when some of the comments are repeated to him. “I grew up being part of a team because I played basketball,” he says. “I think the thing I miss most about basketball is not being on a team. Obviously, golf’s different, but I still enjoy the camaraderie of the locker room. It’s not the same, of course, but you can still enjoy being with a group of guys who are going through most of the same ups and downs that you’re going through. There’s a bond there for sure.”
In a perfect world, Woodland, who turned 35 in May, would be concluding his NBA career right about now. Coming out of high school in Topeka, Kan., he had two options: a golf scholarship at Kansas or a basketball/golf scholarship at Division II Washburn University in his hometown. He chose Washburn because he wanted to play basketball.
“It was my first love,” he says. “When you’re that young, you’re convinced you’ll continue to get better and be able to play your sport for a living someday.” He pauses and smiles. “Hardest call I ever had to make was to Ross Randall [the Kansas golf coach at the time]. He said to me, ‘You’re making a mistake. Your potential in golf is unlimited. When you change your mind, I’ll still have a scholarship for you.’ ”
Woodland didn’t so much change his mind as wake up to the reality of what the highest level of college basketball looked like. Topeka is less than 30 miles from Lawrence, where Kansas is located, and the teams played an exhibition game in November 2002.
Within minutes, Woodland knew he was over his head. “There wasn’t a player on the court for Kansas I was as good as—or even close,” he says with a laugh. “In high school, I was always one of the best players in games. In this game, I basically had no chance, especially against Kirk Hinrich.”
Woodland was a lifelong Kansas fan and had met Hinrich that summer when Woodland’s older sister, C.J., who was working at Kansas’ summer camp, was assigned to drive Hinrich to camp one day. When Woodland heard about that, he said to his sister, “No way are you driving Kirk Hinrich without me going along.”
That was fun. Trying to guard Hinrich? Not so much. “It really hit me hard,” Woodland says. “I knew I wasn’t good enough.”
To be fair, Hinrich played in the NBA for 13 seasons and made more than $72 million in salary. Woodland set himself a very high bar. But that was the point. If he couldn’t get there, or close to it, he had to accept the fact that commissioner David Stern presenting him with a cap at the NBA draft after calling his name wasn’t in his future.
And so, when Washburn’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament, Woodland called Randall to see if he had meant what he said about still being willing to give him a scholarship.
Randall was as good as his word. And because Woodland hadn’t played golf in the fall at Washburn (he was instead getting ready for basketball season), he was eligible to play right away.
By the time he graduated with a degree in sociology in 2007 (the same year Randall retired after 28 years at Kansas), Woodland thought he was good enough to try to make it on the PGA Tour. Two years later, after playing the Hooters Tour and the (then) Nationwide Tour, he got through all three stages of qualifying school and found himself on tour. His rookie season in 2009 was cut short by shoulder surgery, and a year later, he was back at Q school. He survived again and then won for the first time in March 2011 in Tampa. He won again in 2013, in Reno, and then didn’t win for almost five years.
But he was a consistent money-maker and contender during that period. Six times in his career he led tournaments after 54 holes but didn’t win. He was, in the words of fellow pros, the classic ball-striker who had trouble at times getting the ball in the hole.
“It was frustrating,” he says. “I was consistently ranked between 40th and 60th in the world and almost always in the top 30 in the FedEx standings. I played a lot of good golf.
“I don’t know how many times I was measured for clothing for a Ryder Cup or a Presidents Cup team, but I never got there. That really bothered me. I was making a lot of money, but I wasn’t the player I believed I could be—should be.”
• • •
COACHING CHANGES, A WIN … AND HEARTACHE
Woodland changed teachers, going from longtime swing coach Randy Smith to Butch Harmon. Then, when Harmon decided to cut back on his travel at the end of 2017, he recommended that Woodland work with Pete Cowen.
Cowen has worked with many top players—Darren Clarke, Danny Willett, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson among them—and he was glad to help Woodland. During 2018, however, their work together was limited to tournament weeks—usually majors.
Early that year, Woodland finally broke through for his third PGA Tour win, when he shot 64 in the final round at TPC Scottsdale to come from behind and beat Chez Reavie in a playoff.
The victory was overwhelmingly emotional for Woodland because of what he and his wife, Gabby, had endured almost a year earlier. On March 1, Woodland had posted photos on social media of a sonogram showing the twins Gabby was expecting sometime that summer. Later that month, he was on the seventh green at Austin Country Club playing a practice round with Kevin Chappell before the WGC-Dell Match Play tournament when his cellphone rang.
It was Gabby. She was being rushed to the hospital. Her water had broken. She was only 16 weeks pregnant. Woodland left the course and went straight to the hospital. The doctors appeared to have things under control that night, and so he played—and won—his first pool-play match against Emiliano Grillo the next day. But that night the doctors couldn’t keep one of the babies from being born far too prematurely. She had no chance to survive.
“Worst day of my life,” Woodland says, his voice softening. “It was so horrible for Gabby, for both of us. And then the next three months were torture, especially for her, because the doctors had to fight to keep Jaxson from being born and losing him the same way.”
Four times doctors had to take action to delay Jaxson’s birth, but he made it. He was born June 23—still more than 10 weeks early—but weighing enough, at three pounds, to survive. He had to stay in the hospital for almost six weeks and then endure multiple surgeries—three for hernias, one for an infection that wouldn’t allow him to keep milk down—but he survived them all. Today, he’s a healthy 2-year-old.
“We had the best of times and the worst of times, all in a few months,” Woodland says. “I love to play golf, I love to compete, but for a long time the only thing I really wanted to do was be at home with Gabby and Jaxson.”
When he holed his final putt in Scottsdale, Woodland looked up at the sky and pointed a finger in memory of his daughter. “I just wanted her to know she wasn’t forgotten and we still love her,” he said.
The best part of that day was seeing Gabby and Jaxson on the final green. They had been able to travel with him since the start of the year, but Gary and Gabby had been cautious about taking him places where there were a lot of people. So, Sunday in Scottsdale was a breakthrough in more ways than one.
Eight weeks after Gary’s win, the Woodlands went through a second miscarriage. Fifteen months later, while Woodland was at Pebble Beach, Gabby was at home, pregnant with twins—both girls. Even though she had come through the first 30 weeks of the pregnancy healthy, there had been nervous moments: a trip to the hospital just before the PGA Championship and another one for two nights that occurred 10 days after the Open at Pebble. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned the last couple of years,” Woodland says, “it’s what’s most important.”
Earlier this month, Woodland revealed on social media that Gabby had given birth to girls Maddox and Lennox.
• • •
WHY HE WON AT PEBBLE
Woodland will tell you that three things led to his win at Pebble Beach: (1) Insisting to Cowen that they needed to work together more often than just at tournaments. (2) Hiring Phil Kenyon as his putting coach. (3) Amy.
It was Woodland’s agent, Mark Steinberg—better known to most in golf as Tiger Woods’ agent—who brought Kenyon into his life. When Woodland walked off the 18th green at Carnoustie in July 2018 after a one-over-par 72 in the third round at the Open Championship, Steinberg was waiting for him.
“It had been another day when he hit the ball as well as anybody and couldn’t get anything to go in,” Steinberg says. “He had 33, 34 putts, something like that. It was like watching the same bad movie over and over. I knew he was frustrated—I know I was frustrated—more as a friend than an agent.”
Steinberg walked with Woodland from the 18th green to the scoring area, a fairly lengthy walk. “I told him, ‘Sign your card and don’t leave. I want you to meet Phil Kenyon before you go home tonight.’ ”
Woodland reacted instinctively. “It’s Saturday at a major championship,” he said. “This isn’t the time … ”
Steinberg was insistent. “Give me a few minutes. I know he’s around here.”
Reluctantly, Woodland agreed. Not surprisingly, Steinberg found Kenyon on the putting green. Kenyon is Europe’s most renowned putting doctor, much the way Cowen is the continent’s No. 1 swing coach. Steinberg asked Kenyon if he would spend a few minutes with Woodland.
“When?” Kenyon asked.
“Right now,” Steinberg said.
“I was honest with him,” Steinberg said recently. “I told him absolutely nothing might come of it, but I was out of ideas, and so was Gary.”
Woodland had worked informally at times with Brad Faxon and Steve Stricker, whose knowledge of putting is considered unsurpassed among their peers.
A few minutes later, Kenyon and Woodland were on the putting green. They spent about 20 minutes together. The little session didn’t help the next day—Woodland shot 76—but he heard enough to convince him Kenyon was the best person to work with him on his putting.
“Phil didn’t try to completely rebuild my putting approach in a day or a week,” Woodland says. “It was more a gradual thing. But it certainly wasn’t an easy or a quick fix.”
Coincidence or not, Woodland had his best finish at a major a month later at the PGA, finishing T-6. He closed the year with a T-11 at East Lake in the Tour Championship and, as usual, was in a very solid position—26th—on the final FedEx Cup points list.
He began this season well, finishing second in the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges and second in the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui. That was the seventh time he had a 54-hole lead and didn’t win. But that second-place finish would play a key role at Pebble Beach.
“I was up three,” he says. “I remember thinking, I’ve got this one.” But Xander Schauffele birdied four of the last five holes. “And I finish one shot back,” Woodland says. “That hurt.”
Four weeks later, Woodland was in Scottsdale to defend the title he’d won in 2018 before. Before the tournament, the tour asked him about helping out with their annual outreach to local community groups in the Phoenix area. One of those organizations was Special Olympics Scottsdale. Amy Bockerstette had been born in 1998 and had become something of a local phenom—reaching the high school state playoffs once as a member of the Sandra Day O’Connor High School team and then, as a senior, with the team and individually. She had taken part in the celebrity putting contest at TPC Scottsdale in past years.
Initially, the thought was to have Amy walk the 16th hole with Gary. Then the idea was to have her hit a shot. Finally, the decision was made to have her play the hole. And that was how The Legend of Amy and Gary was born. Her dad, Joe, had sneaked three clubs into Woodland’s bag because it was supposed to be a surprise for Amy that she was going to play. The Special Olympics people had suggested she tee it up from 90 or 100 yards. Joe Bockerstette, who caddies for his younger daughter when she plays in tournaments, asked for 120 yards. “That was her sweet spot with her favorite club,” he says. “Her 6-hybrid.”
When Amy’s tee shot drifted into the bunker, her father was a bit unnerved. “I’d put the hybrid, a gap wedge and a putter in the bag,” he said. “No sand wedge. I knew the sand would be fluffier than she was used to. She’s got a nice little chip shot out of bunkers. She couldn’t use it out of this bunker. I was really nervous.”
Which is why, as Amy headed into the bunker, Joe yelled, “Amy, you’ve got to hit this harder.”
Amy yelled back, “Leave me alone. I’ve got this.”
Which, of course, she did.
“Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited on a golf course,” Woodland says. “I wanted to run around the green with my arms in the air.” He settled for a high-five and a hug and then told Amy to wave to the crowd.
Which, of course, she did.
• • •
A STEP BACK BEFORE THE OPEN
In May, Woodland played well at the PGA Championship—T-8—but again knew he left a lot of shots behind on the greens. He talked to Kenyon on the phone the next day.
“I’ve never seen you look better over the ball or with your stroke,” Kenyon said, “and I’ve never seen you have worse results.”
Kenyon and Woodland arrived at Pebble Beach on the Saturday before the Open and worked each of the next five days—on “everything,” Woodland says—about an hour a day. Woodland also spent two days with Cowen, working largely on his pre-round preparation. Instead of just going through the bag, Cowen wanted him to think about shots he was likely to need during the round.
Woodland started with a 68 on Thursday, but it was his 65 on Friday that put him in the lead. After a 69 on Saturday, he led Justin Rose by one and Koepka by four. It was the specter of Koepka lurking that made Woodland’s friends nervous.
“The way Brooks has been playing, you had to be a little nervous didn’t you?” Thomas says. “And then he goes out and birdies four of the first six, and you’re thinking, Uh-oh, Gary, how are you holding up?”
One person who wasn’t worried was Amy. “You got this,” she had tweeted at Woodland that weekend.
“It wasn’t a pep talk,” her dad says. “She really believed it.”
By then, Woodland was holding up fine. But it hadn’t been easy. “Saturday night, it felt like all I was asked about or heard about were the seven lost 54-hole leads,” he says. “Hey, I understood. I just said, ‘This time is different. I’m a different player.’ ”
But then he left a 15-foot birdie putt short on No. 1 on Sunday, and some of those bad Sunday memories came back. “That had been my biggest problem in the past,” he says. “I’d start leaving putts short, and then it would get in my head. I’m not going to say I thought, Here we go again, but I’d be lying if I said the past didn’t flash through my mind.”
For all the post-round talk about the 3-wood on the par-5 14th and the wedge at the par-3 17th, Woodland believes the most important shot he hit all day was his tee shot at No. 2. “I just crushed it,” he says. “That was massive for me mentally. Then I hit it to 10 feet and made the birdie putt. From that point on, really, I was OK. I knew Brooks was coming after me, but I didn’t think it was a day to shoot 65, even for him. I believed if I could shoot 69, I’d win.”
He wobbled a little around the turn, made an important par at 13 from the rough to hold a one-shot lead and then came to 14, one of golf’s toughest par 5s. A good drive left him with 263 yards to the hole—uphill, meaning it would play about 273. From almost the same distance, he watched Rose lay up. “I was thinking the same thing, lay up,” Woodland says. “But then Butchie [caddie Brennan Little] said to me, ‘You can get there with 3-wood, and even if you miss the green, you’ll have an easier shot than if you lay up.’ ”
Woodland was a little surprised. In their three years together, it had often been Woodland wanting to be aggressive, Little urging him to play conservatively. Now, with the roles reversed, Woodland decided to listen.
His 3-wood flew over the bunker front-left of the green and just missed the green to the left. But it was just above the hole in a good lie. From there, Woodland chipped to two feet and made the birdie putt.
“The two-shot lead meant I didn’t have to hit another driver,” he said. “I could hit irons on 15 and 16 and obviously 17. I’d worry about 18 when we got there.”
He was still leading by two at 17 when his 5-iron hung to the right with the hole on the left side of the green. From 80 feet with a hump in the green and a bunker more or less blocking the way if he rolled a putt on the correct line, he had to chip the ball off the green.
“Butchie reminded me that I’d had the same shot on Friday,” Woodland says. “I’d hit that one to 10 feet and made the putt. I honestly thought I could get this one closer.”
While he waited his turn, Woodland glanced up the 18th and saw Koepka miss a putt on the green. He didn’t know if it was for birdie or eagle, but he knew for sure if he made par he’d go to 18 with the lead. Then he chipped it to two feet. “Not as hard a shot as people made it out to be,” he says. “I’m not saying it was easy, but I knew I could get it close. I actually thought I’d made it.”
By the time he got onto the 18th tee, he knew his lead was two because Koepka’s missed putt had been for birdie, which was why Woodland pulled another iron on the tee. But his mental approach didn’t change. He thought back to Maui. “I told myself, Don’t let this golf tournament be over until you’re in the hole on 18,” he says. “That’s why I didn’t smile at all walking up 18 or look around. I was all about getting in the hole. Once I saw I was safely on the green [he couldn’t see where his wedge shot had landed from where he was on the fairway], I thought, Hey, make this for 13 under. I knew Tiger had shot 12 under” in 2000. The putt, of course, went in the hole.
The Bockerstettes were in Florida for the weekend. “It was a stressful afternoon,” Joe says.
Amy saw every shot Woodland hit even as he told himself often throughout the day, “I got this.”
“She really was there with me, seriously,” Woodland says. When he walked onto “The Today Show” set holding the Open trophy, he turned to her and said: “We won that together.”
That was the choke-up moment.
The funny moment had come on Sunday as Woodland walked off the 18th green. The first person to greet him was Kuchar, his best friend on tour. Like everyone who knows Kuchar, Woodland has spent a lifetime dealing with Kuchar’s zings and practical jokes. When Woodland pulls into the parking lot at Innisbrook outside Tampa and looks for his reserved spot as a past champion, it is always taken … by Kuchar. Two years ago at the Open Championship, Woodland played well the first three rounds and was in one of the late groups Sunday. When he went to pull golf balls from his bag to mark them for the day, they were already marked—most of them profanely. Woodland didn’t have to think twice about who the marker had been.
And so, as Kuchar hugged him and congratulated him, Woodland finally had the zing-back moment he had been waiting to have for years. “I looked at him and said, ‘You know, someday I may tell you how you do this.’ ”
Kuchar has done everything there is to do in a career except this—win a major.
“I had no comeback,” Kuchar admits. “Gary had just done something I’ve always dreamed of doing—won the U.S. Open, and he’d done it at Pebble Beach. I was thrilled for him. I was also jealous.”
But the best moment came three days later, when Gary and Gabby returned home from the New York PR tour. Waiting for them was Jaxson Lynn Woodland, four days shy of his second birthday.
“He always runs to me when I get home,” Woodland says. “Then he goes back to doing his thing. This time, though, he wouldn’t let go of me. It was as if he understood something special had happened.”
Jaxson is clearly precocious.