A version of this story appears in the July 1, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The stage was ripe for a collapse: major championship pressure, on one of the sport’s iconic venues, with the best player in the world and two-time defending champion breathing down your neck.
That’s what Gary Woodland faced as he navigated Pebble Beach’s treacherous back nine in pursuit of a life-changing victory. As the waves crashed and the temperature dropped and Brooks Koepka charged, Woodland never blinked. Quite the opposite—the 35-year-old Kansan summoned two unforgettable shots when he needed them most to win the U.S. Open by three shots.
We caught up with Woodland shortly after his first major title to discuss his unorthodox path to the PGA Tour, a motivational pre-round text message and much more.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Daniel Rapaport: You’ve long been considered one of the most naturally talented players on Tour, but coming into the U.S. Open you only had three wins in almost a decade on Tour. Did you ever feel like you were underachieving?
Gary Woodland: Yeah. I got on Tour really quickly after being kind of a no-name in college [at Kansas], and then I won shortly after that, in Tampa in 2011. The expectation, then, was to keep building on that. But I dealt with injuries and split with a swing coach. You could definitely say it took a lot longer than I would have liked.
DR: So what changed from then to now?
GW: Butch [Harmon, my old swing coach] retired at the end of last year, and I made the switch to working with Pete Cowen full time. Right before the PGA, we spent a few days together talking for hours and hours talking about why I do certain things and what I needed to do to be successful.
DR: You played well at the PGA, finishing T9, but you had a kind of whatever week at the Memorial, your last start before the U.S. Open. Did you have any indication in the lead-up to Pebble that you were ready to win a major?
GW: I made quite a few birdies at the Memorial. I think I made 20 for the week and shot one over par. The finish wasn’t as bad as my game was showing. I think I birdied five of the first six to start the tournament then made a triple. I made a double every day. The goal going into the U.S. Open, knowing I was making a lot of birdies and playing well, was to eliminate the big numbers. So when I got in trouble, I played conservatively and only made four bogeys for the whole week. My game was in good shape, and I walked away from the Memorial feeling a lot better than the finish showed.
DR: Cowen sent you a text message on Sunday morning before your round. What did it say?
GW: “Every man dies, but not every man lives. You live for this moment. Go out and enjoy it.” It was awesome because it wasn’t a golf text. It was about enjoying the pressure. It was special for me, and I used it a ton on Sunday.
DR: Before the tournament, Koepka said if he were another player and saw KOEPKA on the leaderboard, he’d think, “Really? Not again…” What were you thinking when he made that early run on Sunday?
GW: I hadn’t even teed off yet and I could hear the roar from his birdie at 1. And then he birdied 3 and 4 and 5. I knew he was coming. I played with Tiger last year on Sunday at Bellerive, and I watched him shoot 64 and I was distracted by everything that came with playing with Tiger. I was determined not to let that happen again. So it didn’t’ matter if it was Tiger Woods was there or whoever it was. I was focused on myself and controlling my emotions and not worry about what anyone else is doing.
DR: Were you impressed with how well you handled it?
GW: I was. I enjoyed the moment. I heard all day in the media tent on Saturday night that I was 0 for 7 when holding the 54-lead in PGA Tour events. I must have reminded myself one million times on Saturday night that records are meant to be broken. I said it so many times that by Sunday morning, I believed it. I believed it was my day.
DR: You hit two shots that will live in U.S. Open lore—the 3-wood from 263 uphill into 14, and the chip from the 17th green to save par. Which was more impressive to you?
GW: The shot on 14, by far. I could have won or last the golf tournament on that shot. I could have hit that out of bounds left pretty quickly, and knowing I only had a one-shot lead, a lot of bad things could have happened with that shot. It was the first time all week I was considering playing conservative and laying up. My caddie is the one who talked me into it. He said, “it’s a perfect number. Hit it over the green. Give it all you got. It’s a perfect shot. The layup is just as hard as the shot. Let’s go.” That gave me a ton of confidence. The shot on 17—fortunately, I had that same shot on Friday and got it up-and-down. So I knew I could do it.
DR: Sounds like your caddie was a big help.
GW: He was as good as he’s ever been. He was on the bag when Mike Weir won the Masters, so he’s been there before. It was a huge step in our relationship. That call on 14—that’s the best call I’ve seen a caddie make in my 11-plus years as a professional.
DR: Before you turned pro, you played a year of college basketball at Washburn, a DII school in Kansas, before transferring to KU to play golf. When did you realize you had a better chance to play professional golf than professional basketball?
GW: My first game in college, we went to Allen Fieldhouse to play Kansas. My assignment was to guard Kirk Henrich. I realized 10 seconds into the game that they were at a different level, a level I wasn’t physically capable of getting to. I needed to find something different to do, quickly. Fortunately, I had golf to fall back on.
DR: That backup plan worked out decently. Who was the coolest person to congratulate you after Sunday?
GW: I’m a huge sports guy, so getting messages from guys I grew up watching and following—Scott Van Pelt, Chris Paul, Charles Barkley, Adam Schefter—was really special.