PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The U.S. Open is always won by Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. Except when it is won by Lucas Glover, Michael Campbell or Steve Jones.
(Gary Woodland leads the 119th U.S. Open after three rounds.)
Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open, and Phil Mickelson hasn’t, either. But Retief Goosen, Lee Janzen and Andy North won it twice.
(Woodland has won $22 million but owns only three nondescript PGA Tour wins because he putts like a golden retriever — until last month, when he learned how.)
In just the past 50 years — an afternoon nap in golf time — Orville Moody, Lou Graham, Scott Simpson, Geoff Ogilvy, Graeme McDowell and Webb Simpson have won the U.S. Open, but none of them have won any other major. Neither did any of those players mentioned with mild disparagement in previous paragraphs.
(Woodland, 35, was the longest driver in golf for years.)
Perhaps the most shocking of all U.S. Open wins came in 1913 when a 20-year-old amateur, Francis Ouimet — who had a 10-year-old as his caddie — managed to beat Ted Ray and Harry Vardon, the guy whom your golf grip may be named after.
In short, the U.S. Golf Association always meets its goal of “identifying the best golfer” with its stern tests — except in the many instances, including Jack Fleck, Ed Furgol, Lawson Little, Sam Parks and Olin Dutra, when its winners ranged from good players but unlikely champs to preposterous.
So when everyone you know, as well as everyone who has ever met any of the people you know, agrees that Brooks Koepka will win his third straight U.S. Open on Sunday — which has been done only once, by Willie Anderson in 1903 (the year the Wright Brothers flew), 1904 and 1905 — you can tell them, “Not so fast.”
Next, they will proclaim that if Koepka, who is four behind Woodman, does not win, then surely the champ will be England’s Justin Rose, an elite veteran and U.S. Open champ in 2013 who’s only one shot behind Woodburn.
That’s when you say, “It’s Gary Woodland — not Woodman or Woodburn.”
After his 68-65-69 work this week, Woodland brimmed with confidence, pointing to his improved short game in recent years as well as a feeling of “comfort” with the way Pebble Beach set up for his golfing eye. “I’ve worked for this my whole life. I’ve always played [all] sports. I know what it takes to win,” said Woodland, who began college as a scholarship basketball player. “If I play the way I have been, the guys behind me are going to have to do something really, really special.”
In high school, where he was all-state (Kansas) in basketball on a team that won two state titles, Woodland once took a charge when an opponent was trying to dunk. Struck by a knee to the throat, he suffered a collapsed trachea, left on a stretcher and was rushed to the emergency room. “That was on Tuesday,” he said. “I scored 20 on Friday.”
In these days of depraved public morals, it is possible to place wagers on golf tournaments. Even if Ted Leonsis offers me my own prop bet on Woodland, I would demur. Instead, I will merely observe Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach Golf Links, dateline Close-to-Heaven.
The way to bet is that something evil will befall the noble, gritty Woodland. In his first 27 starts in major championships, he never finished in the top 10. In his most recent three, he has been in the top 10 twice.
On the back nine in Saturday’s third round, Woodland did every wild and woolly thing you could imagine to endanger yourself here except drive 100 mph through the morning mist on the switchback cliffs of Big Sur. After a tap-in birdie at the par-4 11th hole to reach 11 under — a level below par that often prompts the USGA to post your face on “wanted” posters — Woodland’s wheels wobbled until he seemed to be running on his axles.
But his brilliant, heart-stopping stuntman recoveries kept him in the lead. At the par-3 12th hole, his tee shot stuck in a bunker bank at knee height, forcing Woodland to take a baseball swing. He shanked his improvisational recovery. But then he chipped in, his shot curving, hooking, trickling with a six-foot break right into the hole’s heart. That merited a major fist pump.
“Horrible — shanked that shot. I told myself, ‘Take your medicine,’ ” said Woodland, meaning be sure to make bogey and don’t compound your mistake. Instead, he watched his chip stay on the perfect line. “Nice that it went in.”
At the 13th, he missed the fairway, missed the green, then got up and down for a par save. However, at the 14th, he topped himself with the kind of shots that, to those who have watched dozens of Opens, often presages “shocking winner.”
Woodland’s drive was wild right because his back foot slipped on his swing. He then hacked from the left rough to the right rough. After laying up with his third shot on the par-5, Woodland almost left his approach disastrously short of the hole on a severe slope in the green where balls have trickled back . . . back . . . back down into the fairway, often rolling 40 yards in the horrid wrong direction. That steep green has attacked Rory McIlroy twice this week and Tiger Woods, too.
But in a spot, 42 feet from the hole, where no ball has come to rest — and stayed there — in nearly three days of play, Woodland’s ball stuck like it had gum on its tummy. Then Woodland made the bombshell putt to save par and keep his lead on Rose, his playing partner.
The phrase “Woodland just made another putt” has seldom been heard in golf — as Woodland would be the first to admit. But last month, he believes, he had a breakthrough in his work with Coach Phil Kenyon.
“The PGA [Championship] was one of the worst weeks I’d had putting,” he said, “but [Kenyon] told me it was the best he’s ever seen my stroke.” On hearing these contradictory, infuriating words, some pros might get a new coach or leap off one of the cliffs of Carmel Bay. My stroke is perfect, but I missed everything.
Woodland decided, after 25 years of serious golf and 14 years as a pro, that he needed to learn how to read greens — or read them differently than he had. “Because the stroke itself was really good, that gave me a lot of confidence,” he said.
Every hacker has “solved” putting at least three times in his life. It’s part of the lifelong disease. Is it real? Does it last? Nothing makes a player feel invincible like the rock-solid belief that he’s about to make everything he looks at.
But what happens Sunday if Woodland starts missing the same putts he has been making for three days, including the lifetime supply that he sank in his second-round 65? No one knows — not even Woodland.
Many players have won the U.S. Open who “couldn’t” or “shouldn’t” have. In almost every case, they had to face down some of the best, hottest players in the world to do it — men such as Rose, Koepka and McIlroy (6 under).
Golf has had 20 years to get to know Rose, who has won huge mountains of cash but only one major title. And everyone has been saturated with Koepka for the past two years. A third straight U.S. Open title for a player who had only one career win before he won the first would rank — in sheer unlikelihood — not far behind Woods’s win at Augusta in April.
On Sunday, there will be plenty of time for such things if form holds and Woodland’s moment at the center of the golf universe passes quietly. But here’s what you need to remember about the U.S. Open: It shreds expectations, it anoints the almost unknown, it loves a Moody, and it rejoices when a Fleck beats Ben Hogan head-to-head.
“Take a deep breath,” said the man who leads the U.S. Open, a position with more pressure than anything he has ever experienced or endured before. “Try to slow things down a tiny bit.”
The name is Woodland. Only one player is closer than four shots. Tune in Sunday. And if you like the look of him, cross your fingers. Such things have happened at the U.S. Open — often, in fact.