Woodland back on course after hectic offseason

Gary Woodland

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KAPALUA, Hawaii – Not long after Gary Woodland had helped the United States secure its first World Cup in 11 years less than six weeks ago – partnering with Matt Kuchar in China – a familiar voice called from home wishing to tell Woodland just how good his driver swing looked on the 18th tee.

Woodland, one of golf’s longest knockers, would have been far more comfortable hitting 3-wood on the tight final hole, what with water guarding the right side, but at Kuchar’s constant urging, he hit the big stick. He drilled it absolutely perfectly, too, some 320-plus yards down the fairway. Instead of having to hit hybrid into the final green in the alternate-shot format, Kuchar was left with only a 6-iron in his hands at the 470-yard hole.

“I had to hit a perfect shot,” Woodland said, recalling the pressure of protecting a two-shot lead, “and I did.”

Back to the phone call: The voice belonged to Randy Smith, Woodland’s longtime mentor, phoning Woodland from Dallas. In their six years together as instructor and pupil, Smith told Woodland it was the best swing he’d ever seen him make. A new year brings new promise for Woodland, a first-time visitor to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. It also arrives with some considerable change.

Woodland switched representation over the holidays, moving from Hambric Sports to Excel Sports Management, joining a small stable managed by former IMG agent Mark Steinberg. Woodland joins a cast that features Tiger Woods and Kuchar. With Hambric, Woodland had been managed by Blake Smith – the son of his coach. And just as Woodland had parted ways with Blake Smith, a few days ago, Randy Smith placed one more call to Woodland – informing him that because of Woodland’s recent change in management, the two of them no longer would be working with one another, either.

“I was lucky to work with Randy for six years, and wouldn’t be where I am without him,” Woodland said. “Things happen. He’s got to do what is best for him and his family. I’ve got to do what’s best for me.

“Randy was great to me. Still is. I still feel that, if I really needed to, I could call him and he would help me out.”

Moving ahead with a new set of eyes on his swing will make for an interesting transition for Woodland, a 27-year-old power player who has the tools to be a breakout star on the PGA Tour in 2012. A year ago, coming off surgery to repair a torn left labrum and fresh out of Q-School, he won the Transitions Championship and performed well at the big events, finishing inside the top 30 in each of the year’s four majors. Woodland rose from 588th in the world to start the year all the way to 52nd at season’s end. Part of his success is due to “dialing it back” a little with his powerful swing.

He and Randy Smith proved a formidable team on the course, with Smith playing a key role in Woodland’s strategy and course preparations. At the PGA Championship in August, where Woodland tied for 12th, the two men dissected the golf course together, plotting and figuring out options available to Woodland that those who hit it shorter simply don’t possess.

“That one is just hard for me to put into words,” Randy Smith said from Dallas. “We did some great work together, and I had some pretty good plans for Gary; he did, too. But sometimes business decisions are made … I had to bow out of this one, I really did. I hate it. I think a lot of Gary. I think he’ll do marvels out there.”

Following this week’s start at Kapalua, Woodland said he will take two weeks off, and in that time he expects to finalize a decision on a new instructor.

Woodland said he looks forward to getting a ball into the air in competition to put all the off-course drama behind him. He also said his confidence never has been higher, fueled by his pairing at the World Cup with Kuchar, an upbeat partner who continually urged Woodland to capitalize on his biggest weapon: his prodigious length off the tee. It’s an asset Woodland plans to utilize more as he begins a new season.

Last season, he finished fifth on the PGA Tour in driving distance (310.5 yards), but that’s somewhat misleading, as often he resorted to hitting 3-woods and 2-irons off the tee. In China, under pressure and with Kuchar’s encouragement, he hit more drivers, and the result was the best driving week of his life. Hitting driver more frequently – and hitting it straight – could help Woodland to improve one of the statistics upon which he is focused in 2012: par-5 scoring average. He birdied roughly half of the par 5s that he played (49.3 percent) but knows he can vastly improve that figure with better driving. With wide fairways awaiting him this week at Kapalua’s Plantation Course, driver is a club he’ll choose often.

“(If) I’m hitting 3-wood and everyone else is hitting driver, it’s a level playing field,” he said. “If I’m hitting driver straight, then I think I’m playing at a different level than everybody else.”

Woodland believes if he can drive it better, putt better more consistently (he worked on his putting and short game with Brad Faxon in 2011) and become generally more consistent, his potential is limitless. He wants to contend more this season.

“I’m not out here to finish in the top 25,” he said.

Being in Hawaii to start his year at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions certainly is different than arriving in Hawaii a year ago, when Woodland showed up at the Sony Open coming off surgery and wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I’m in a different spot than I was last year,” he said. “I don’t think the pressure is there, I just need to go out and execute on some things. I’m ready to get going just to put everything else that’s been going on behind me and get the year started. I’m ready to rock ‘n roll.”

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