PEBBLE BEACH — The old saying has it that there are three levels of pressure in professional golf: tournament play, major-championship play and the Ryder Cup. Gary Woodland is experienced in the first two of those, but has yet to feel the ultimate stress that comes with representing one’s country in the biennial contest between the United States and Europe.
He’s going to come close to that pinnacle of pain in the final round of the 119th U.S. Open, though. For the first time in the decade he has spent on the PGA Tour, Woodland is in the final group in the final round of a Grand Slam event. How he handles all that comes with such a position has career-defining possibilities, both good and bad. Win and all is well with the world; lose and any doubts currently percolating in the subconscious of man who played in 27 majors before recording even a mundane top-10 finish are likely to grow.
So what can he expect? Should he go to bed early, or late? Should he rise early or late in the morning of what has the potential to be a long day, even before he tees off at 2.30 pm local time alongside Justin Rose? Just how is he going to feel standing over that opening shot? How will he handle the inevitable moments of crisis on the course? The questions are many, the answers impossible to calculate with complete accuracy.
“It’s obviously a different experience, but Gary has been around long enough to have some idea of what to expect,” says Open champion Francesco Molinari. “He will know he has to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of himself. He won’t have Tiger playing with him. That is a big thing here in the States. But it will still be a challenge. You just never really know for sure what is going happen, until someone is in that position.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the inevitable feeling of solitude that is part of leading any golf tournament, a sensation magnified multiple times when eyes across the globe are trained on the man with his name at the top of the board.
“It's a lonely place out there,” confirms Graeme McDowell, champion at Pebble Beach nine years ago. “This course is a little bit of a sleeping giant. It doesn't take but a few loose shots before you can be in scramble mode out there. So Gary has to be patient, keep hitting fairways and greens and stay in the moment. He's been there a few times. He's won a few events. He's a big boy. I'm sure he can handle up himself.”
Ah, but can he? That is perhaps the ultimate question.
“It is likely to be a difficult sleep for him tonight,” says 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk. ”It was for me. But everyone handles that differently. If I had to give him any advice it would be to be himself and do all things he normally does. Maybe the toughest part is the long wait to tee off. Especially on the West Coast. Everyone usually has a hard time sleeping in. If he’s like me, he’ll be awake early then up all day.
“Being in the last group is tough enough. Leading is tougher. I remember hearing Johnny Miller say that it was my tournament to lose, which put me off my guard. But I thought about it for a while and concluded that I couldn’t have that attitude. So I went out there thinking it was my tournament to win. That’s what Gary needs to do too.”
If history is our guide, Woodland’s solid performance on Day 3 augurs well for his chances. Back in 2010, McDowell drew inspiration and confidence from his own play in the third round, albeit he began the final day three shots behind Dustin Johnson.
“Saturday was a big day for me to acclimatize myself to the pressure,” says the Northern Irishman. “I felt in a funny way going into Sunday I was more prepared because of what I'd gone through Saturday.
“Coming down the back nine, I remember counting the shots down, counting the holes down. Five to go. Four to go. I was telling myself to hang in there, to stay in the present. I had all the cliches going, every sports psychology lesson I’d ever been taught, read in books or been told by people.”
The signs are that Woodland has been doing a bit of listening and reading of his own. During his post-round press conference, the 35-year old Kansan was making a lot of the noises recommended by his fellow pros. As Walter Hagen proposed many years ago, he is even going to take time to "smell the flowers."
“It's nice to be at Pebble Beach,” Woodland said. “There are a lot of scenic views out there where you can take a step back and put things in perspective real quick. I'm getting more and more comfortable with the situation I’m in, just because I've been in this situation a lot. I've had a lot of close calls this year in tournaments. My game is becoming more complete, and with that comes a lot of confidence and adds up to playing good golf.
“So I don't need to change anything. I just need to enjoy the moment. This is what we play for. This is what I've worked so hard for. What I've learned is I can't control everybody else. But I can control my attitude, and I can control my game. And that's what I'm out here to do.”
Well said. Now all he has to do is play as well as he talks.