PEBBLE BEACH — Gary Woodland might seem like an unlikely leader halfway through this year’s U.S. Open, given that Pebble Beach, at just slightly longer than 7,000 yards, isn’t a ballpark built to reward the power game that the 35-year-old possesses.
Did we mention that he also came into the week ranked 150th on the PGA Tour in putting? So much for statistics.
Riding a red-hot putter to scorch the notoriously bumpy Poa annua, Woodland carved up the Monterey Peninsula on Friday with a bogey-free six-under 65 to take a two-stroke lead over Justin Rose heading into the weekend.
Why the turnaround?
“This golf course I feel comfortable at,” said Woodland, who had the best round of the day and matched Tiger Woods in 2000 and Rose on Thursday with the low round at Pebble Beach in a U.S. Open. “With the [putting] stroke itself, I put a lot of work in with [coach] Phil Kenyon. The PGA Championship [in May] was one of the worst weeks I’d had putting, but he told me it was the best he's ever seen my stroke.”
The latter showed on Friday.
Exhibit A: Woodland’s 50-footer for birdie on the par-4 ninth to cap a closing 31.
There were plenty of others, too. After starting his round on the 10th hole, Woodland drained a 17-footer on the 16th an eight-footer on the first and a 15-footer on the difficult par-3 fifth—all for birdies.
But it wasn’t just the birdie putts that proved critical.
After hitting his approach long on the testy par-4 eighth, Woodland got up-and-down from a tough patch of rough short of the green, rolling in a 15-footer to save par. It was one of a handful of nervy saves to keep his card blemish free.
“It was a huge confidence boost going into the last,” Woodland said. “And that was probably the biggest shot of the day.”
One of the biggest changes Woodland made, began in earnest last July when he started working with Kenyon on his putting. He simplified his approach, which helped him reduce the tension in his pre-putt routine and lessen his anxiety. Woodland also added a larger grip to his putter. The combination resulted in a boost in confidence.
It has shown this week. Through his first 36 holes, Woodland leads the field in strokes-gained/putting at 7.16 — a huge improvement from his negative-0.211 mark on the season.
All this has him in position to win his first career major championship. After going his first 27 majors without finishing in the top 10, Woodland has finished in the top 10 in two of the last three majors. That includes a tie for sixth at last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive, where he set the tournament’s 36-hole scoring record with opening rounds of 64-66 (a mark that was Brooks Koepka would break at this year’s PGA at Bethpage Black).
“You feel like you’re out there searching,” Woodland said when asked about the difference between his putting before he started working with Kenyon and now. “And that’s a big deal for me now. I know we have my stroke where I want it. I’m not searching anymore.
“Now it’s more about learning the speed, learning the greens. I’m not focused on my stroke. And that’s a big deal with confidence.”