PEBBLE BEACH — This was a U.S. Open to love. No angst, no anxiety, no punishment for the slightest of golf sins. We came to the sea, walking on cliffs along the blue Pacific Ocean, and, yes, pacific is the word, soothing, peaceable. The newest of the game’s superman champions—Gary Woodland, big, strong, willful, a second coming of Brooks Koepka—did a hero’s work in the last hour and here’s how peaceably Woodland celebrated. Mostly he slipped his hands into his pants pockets and walked to the next tee.
At the 13th, an hour to play, Woodland ripped a shot out of rough that would have broken a lesser man’s wrists. A par there kept him a shot ahead.
At the 14th, the issue in doubt, he rocketed a 3-wood from 263 yards, taking dead-aim at an impossible hole location, the rocket touching ground a foot over an abyss of a bunker where many a man’s dreams have died. A birdie.
At the 15th and 16th, routine pars, if any par on Sunday in the U.S. Open can be declared routine.
At the 17th, a half-hour to play, goodgawdamighty, what Woodland did there, a pitch from 91 feet, a pitch from the collar at the far end of the hour-glass green, a pitch full of peril, a pitch that had to landed right where he wanted it to land, on the flat of a ledge, so it would roll to a stop two feet from a par as great as a man could make. And how peaceably did Woodland celebrate that work? He did a soft fist-bump with Justin Rose, the Englishman and 2013 U.S. Open champion who never once frightened Woodland this day.
At the 18th, from 30 feet, everything settled, Woodland finished with an athlete’s flair, a birdie putt that confirmed what Jack Nicklaus said long ago: “I’ve always thought that the U.S. Open made a man out of you more than any other tournament.”
Pebble Beach this week was a kind and gentle U.S. Open layout. No radical fairways, no ankle-high rough the first cut in, no greens as firm as highways. And yet it was the Open, the American national championship that has identified Bobby Jones and Nicklaus and Tiger as, choose one, the best ever. So if you’re Gary Woodland and you’re 35 years old and you’ve won only three PGA Tour events in 11 seasons, it seems reasonable to expect less of you than you gave us on this Sunday in the Open heat.
With Rose as his playing partner, with the seemingly indomitable Koepka playing one group ahead in pursuit of a third straight Open championship and fifth major in nine starts, Woodland might have melted away. Seven times in his 11 seasons, he has held a 54-hole lead. Each time he failed to close the deal. Here he had built his lead on rounds of 68, 65, and 69.
And he won going away.
Once upon an earlier time, Woodland was seen as only a big hitter. That he still is. But now he has built a short game so good that one’s memory of his work this week will be of those moments when he turned bogeys into pars—at least three times doing it with putts and chips from 40 and 50 feet.
Truth is, expecting less of Woodland was reasonable only if we hadn’t paid attention. Last August, he came to understand Sunday’s heat when he was paired with Woods in the PGA Championship. That day Woods shot 64 and finished second to Koepka—and Woodland’s 68 for a T-6 went unnoticed save by the man himself, who this week said, “Playing with Tiger last year, I don’t know if I enjoyed it to start the round. There were a lot of moving pieces going on, I got caught up in it. Once I settled in, after I made a birdie putt on 8, I was back to being myself. That’s what I learned from that situation, that I can’t control everybody else. I can control my attitude, and I can control my game. And that’s what I’m out here to do.”
Last month, again in the PGA Championship at the monster Bethpage Black, Woodland finished T-8. And though his best finish in eight U.S. Opens had been T-23, by Friday of this week we knew something big was happening. After his round of 65, he said, “I came here to win, and that’s what we’re going out to do.”
Tiger was a cipher this week, throwing in a mess of birdies Sunday only when they meant nothing. Phil Mickelson got older, and the galleries sang “Happy Birthday,” and he left without winning the Open, again. Poor Justin Rose made every putt for three days and missed them all Sunday. (He began the day a shot behind Woodland, finished six shots back.) Rory McIlroy stressed the importance of a fast start Sunday if he hoped to win, only to double bogey the second hole.
Wait. My favorite factoid on this newest broad-shouldered strongman, Mr. Woodland, once a baseball player and a high-school basketball star: He took a charge from a guy trying to dunk over him. Woodland was hurt badly and taken to an emergency room for treatment of an injured trachea. That happened on a Tuesday.
“Friday night, I came back,” he said. “Scored 20.”