SANDWICH, England – Here was one way to play the 547-yard, par-5 14th hole at Royal St. George’s in Round 3 of the 140th Open Championship:
Two tee balls – one far right, one wide left – a search party of about 50 hearty souls that included girlfriend Gabby Granado, a ferocious swing to hit a golf ball 60 yards, a wet glove, and a total of eight strokes.
A stinging triple-bogey delivered in pelting rain, chilling cold and staggering wind.
Welcome to the Open Championship, Gary Woodland. What do you have to say for yourself?
He smiled, perhaps glad to finally be out of the rain, and said, “You can’t get too frustrated; things will only escalate.”
For more than four and a half hours, the battle to maintain composure was a massive challenge, but it was one that Woodland passed brilliantly. Wherever his golf career takes him – and there’s reason to believe it will be to impressive heights – there’s always the chance you can look back at the 2011 Open Championship and suggest it is when Woodland came of age as a golfer.
Admittedly new to links golf, Woodland went out in ferocious wind Tuesday and openly wondered, “How do you play in this?” The mystery carried over into Thursday’s first round, a 5-over 75, and when he bogeyed twice in four holes Friday, he was 7 over when all around the leaderboard seemed to be bleeding red numbers.
A victory earlier this year at the Transitions Championship says something about his talent, but what speaks volumes about his grit is what took place Friday afternoon. Well outside the cut, Woodland played bogey-free for the last 12 holes, shot 4 under, and made it on the number.
The good news was, he was into weekend play for a third major this season.
The bad news is, his 9:25 tee time assured Woodland of 18 holes in horrendous weather.
Actually, take that back. It’s not really bad news to say you’re out in the rain and wind, not when it means competing in the game’s oldest major championship. So consider it a good-good scenario, shaded in discomfort. And for the better part of his third round, things were downright superb for Woodland, for birdies at the par-4 fifth and par-5 seventh, then rock-solid pars at the ninth, 10th and 11th had him 2 under on a day when players were simply trying to survive.
“The last 14 holes yesterday when I never missed a green and the first 11 holes today were by far the best I’ve played this year,” Woodland said.
Enter the turning point, in a bad way, thanks in part to a vicious left-to-right wind at Nos. 12, 13 and 14 where all the trouble is right. Woodland drove it up against a steep face of a pot bunker at the 12th and made bogey, then drove it right at 13 and was left with a bad angle to the hole and three-putted from about 35 feet over a ridge.
What came next were the woes at 14, but first, a little levity needs to be introduced.
Standing to the right of the 13th fairway with caddie Jon Yarbrough, Woodland stared past the 13th green and 14th tee to golfers at Prince’s Golf Club. He nudged his caddied, pointed and laughed.
“I was shocked,” Woodland said. “There’s no way that we’d be playing in this back home in the States.”
It was starting to come down sideways, flagsticks were bending in half, umbrellas were impossible to open . . . and still, as Woodland looked around, people were playing golf, watching golf, cheering for golf.
“These fans,” he said, “are unbelievable.”
True enough, they are. Sadly, though, what was believable was the weather, because it wasn’t out of the ordinary, not for the Open Championship, and that is why players, caddies, walking officials and spectators alike simply strapped on the rain gear and trudged straight ahead, with head down.
When Woodland up picked his head and watched his tee shot at the 14th, he knew his under-par round was gone. Knowing he needed a perfect strike down the left side in the left-to-right gale, Woodland came up and out of it just enough to send it moving right. Before he saw it land, Woodland stuck out his right hand and asked Yarbrough for another ball.
“The toughest shot out there for me today,” Woodland said of the tee shot at 14.
He was out of bounds right, but his next one went in the other direction, a double-cross that came to rest in knee-high rough perhaps 50 yards left of the fairway. Fortunately for Woodland, the Open Championship attracts an abundantly passionate crowd, so when he cleared the sand dune some 200 yards from the tee, what he saw was a healthy group of people gathered in a semi-circle. His ball had been found. That was the good news. The bad news: Woodland needed to swing a lob wedge as hard as possible to advance it 60 yards.
Woodland handled that, but by now he was four strokes into the hole and still a mile away. He would need four more and when the triple-bogey was complete, visions of a sub-par round were dashed. It was serious hang-on time, what with the wind busting into his face and the rain coming down in torrents. He busted a driver and a 3-iron to make a 3-foot birdie putt at the 496-yard, par-4 15th, but bogeys at the par-3 16th and par-4 17th left him with a round of 74.
True, he had moved up slightly, going from T-59 to T-43 at the signing of his card, but Woodland had done his yeoman work against the worst of the weather. Within a short time things would calm down, birdies would again start falling, and no one was expecting the leaders to back it up that much.
At 7 over, Woodland would be far from the lead.
Truth is, though, he had proven on this most miserable of days that he was closer to understanding this links business than he was a few days earlier.