Woodland Comes Through in Clutch to Win at Innisbrook
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Gary Woodland says he’s still learning to play golf. Which many might find puzzling considering at the end of four rounds, he’s atop the Transitions Championship leaderboard — his first PGA Tour victory in 33 career starts. It’s also his first win since he took home the 2008 High Plains Pro-Am in Kansas.

Woodland, who hits the long ball (I’ve been hearing about his absurd distance since before Q-School), only needed 10 putts on the back nine and 23 total on his way to post his second consecutive 67 at Innisbrook. He sank a clutch 11-footer for par on No. 18 and watched as Webb Simpson made bogey, handing Woodland the victory by one.

The par on 18 was also Woodland’s first on the back nine. He birdied 10, 12, 13, 14 and 17, and bogeyed 11, 15 and 16.

Relatively new to the game compared to his fellow Tour players, Woodland didn’t start playing competitive golf at a high level until college. Recruited to play Division II basketball at Washburn University, he turned down a scholarship offer for golf at Kansas University to pursue his hoop dreams. After his freshman year, Woodland, who always wanted to become a professional athlete, decided to transfer to Kansas.

“I realized there’s not many six-foot white guys in the NBA,” said Woodland, smiling, during a press conference at the Bob Hope Classic where he lost to Jhonattan Vegas in a playoff.

“That first (basketball) game I played in college, we played KU, we were No. 2 in Division II, they were No. 1 in Division I and it just wasn’t close. And after that game I had a blast and it was time for me to start realizing what I was going to do after school, and once basketball was over I made the decision to transfer and start working at golf full-time.”

Woodland, obviously a natural athlete and fierce competitor, made the right choice. He grew up playing sports, which has expedited the learning curve with his golf game.

“Growing up, I played a lot of sports,” said Woodland at his post-win press conference at Innisbrook. “I played baseball until I was 16. I played basketball in college one year. I’ve competed a lot at a national level, just not in golf, so out here, we’ve been trying to transition everything I’ve done in my life to golf.

“I got out here in ’09. I wasn’t a very good golfer. I was athletic, but I didn’t know what I was doing out here. I got hurt and I had time to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I’m starting to figure that out right now.”

That might be a bit of an understatement. Woodland tore his labrum in his left shoulder in August ’09. After enduring surgery, he went through nine months of rehab before he got back to focusing on competitive golf.

Woodland credits his work with swing instructor Randy Smith and putting coach Brad Faxon for the tremendous improvement in his game and helping him formulate a game plan at Innisbrook, a course where length isn’t necessarily an advantage.

“I can’t come out here and hit the golf ball 900 yards and win,” said Woodland. “I’ve been playing well, but I didn’t feel comfortable with my game last week. I flew in to see Randy Smith and he talked to me on Sunday, saying, the guys that win here are very conservative, they’re veterans and we’re going to have to play a very conservative game plan.”

And that’s what Woodland did. He throttled back, leaving his driver in the bag for all but four or five holes, and focused on hitting fairways and greens.

“I’m learning you just can’t come out here and fire at every pin and hit driver on every hole,” he said, smiling. “I did that in ’09 and it didn’t work out very well.”

During Woodland’s rookie year in ’09, he made eight cuts in eighteen starts and his best finish was T28 at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, an opposite field event. Now, in ’11 he’s healthy and more experienced, it’s been an entirely different story. In six previous starts, he already notched three top-tens, including T6 at the Honda Classic a few weeks ago, which boasted an incredibly strong field. The strong start resulted in Woodland reshuffling to No. 1 on the Q-school and Nationwide Tour grad list after Mayakoba to ensure priority for getting into events.

He was definitely due to break through. (Hence, my suggestion to Golf Digest‘s Dave Shedlowski to pick Woodland. Miceli seconded it and a formerly skeptical Shed was sold.) I’d watched him quite a bit this year and he impressed me with his competitive attitude and fearlessness — he also didn’t strike me as the type to choke.

“It wasn’t being in contention that I was ever going to struggle with, it was getting in contention,” said Woodland. “It was learning how to play this game. Once I learned how to play, we thought we’d be pretty good. The whole deal with me is learning to play the game.”

To win a PGA Tour event while he’s still learning? Now that’s scary. By that, I mean, Woodland is going to be scary good in a few years. You know, when he finally gets a hold of the game.

Besides collecting his maiden PGA Tour victory, a two-year exemption and $990,000, Woodland also earns his first trip to The Masters — not a bad bonus. Now if his Kansas Jayhawks can knock off Illinois tonight, it’ll really top off an already unforgettable day.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)