New outlook produces positive results for Woodland

Gary Woodland celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 15th hole during the final round of the Reno-Tahoe Open.

Gary Woodland celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 15th hole during the final round of the Reno-Tahoe Open.

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. – When the top players in golf gathered in Scotland, at Muirfield, for last month’s venerable Open Championship, Gary Woodland was at home in Kansas, viewing the tournament on his television.

He almost had to make himself do it, having refused to watch when the Masters and U.S. Open rolled on without him earlier in the year. But this time, the golfer ranked 36th in the world just two years ago made himself watch just to see what he was missing.

“It was hard,” he said. “It’s hard to know that’s where you want to be, and you’re not there. The majors … that’s our big stage. Those are the tournaments you want to win. And when you’re at home, watching everybody else … well, that was the low point.”

He’d have been in Kansas during this week’s 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill, too, had it not been for a side trip he decided to make to Nevada last week. Again, as the world’s best competed at a WGC event in Akron, Woodland flew west to Reno, to tee off in the PGA Tour’s opposite-field event. And there, for the player whose world ranking had tumbled to No. 268, all the pieces and hard work finally fell into place: His health. His swing. His confidence. His length. His mental strength. In a format that suits his power, he dominated the Stableford scoring to capture the Reno-Tahoe Open, his second career PGA Tour victory, thus earning an 11th-hour ticket to the PGA in New York.

“I let go of everything,” he said Wednesday afternoon, shortly before venturing out to see Oak Hill’s back nine for first time, “and just allowed myself to play golf.”

It sounds so simple, but his path to holding that trophy in Reno had not been simple at all. The last year and a half have been something of a blur for Woodland, 29, an all-around athlete who arrived late to golf and is one of the most prodigious hitters on Tour. In no particular order, he changed equipment companies, management companies and also coaches, switching from Randy Smith to Butch Harmon, and it didn’t help that his high-speed swing was leading him to nagging left wrist and right hand injuries. In a word, his career became sidetracked.

In trying to hone a new swing under the eye of Harmon, moving away from the comfort of a power fade to a foreign pattern of working the ball right to left, he got lost. Like a young kid from rural Kansas dropped off somewhere in the middle of Central Park.

“It’s been a long, hard process,” Woodland said. “Finally getting healthy has been nice. I’ve been healthy since March, and playing better, but I just didn’t see the results. I’m a better man for the struggles I’ve been through, and last week also validates that I’m doing the right things.”

In May, at The Players, Woodland transitioned to teacher Claude Harmon III, Butch’s son, who works with Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson, among others. By then, he’d already shifted the grip in his right hand from his palm to his fingers, alleviating the blunt trauma he was causing with each swing, and began to revisit an old friend – his power cut, or, as Harmon refers to it, a “pull-cut.” His work with Butch Harmon had helped Woodland to understand his swing a little better, and now he’s able to self-correct when things start to go slightly awry. Agent Mark Steinberg gave him a pep talk the Monday of Reno week that hit home, and the day before the tournament began, Woodland also began a dialogue with sports psychologist Julie Elion, who helped convince him there was progress in the steps he was taking, and that already he was “winning.”

Woodland’s victory in Reno was his first top 10 of 2013, but the numbers mask the consistency that was showing up (no missed cuts since Tampa in March, and four top-16s since Memorial).

Having been in the top 50 and been eligible for all the high-profile marquee events in 2011-12, Woodland knows the razor-thin line on Tour dividing the haves and have-nots, and what it’s like to suddenly be on the outside looking in. In this game, it all happens quickly. And Claude Harmon’s message to Woodland after his victory in Reno was simple: You’re back in the big leagues. Make sure you don’t return to that precarious position again.

“It’s not easy out here. There is no road map,” Harmon said. “You look at players like Brandt (Snedeker) and Kooch (Matt Kuchar), they’re now winning every year, winning good tournaments, making Ryder Cup teams. I want Gary to be one of those guys. This is about having the ability to play every tournament that matters for the next 15 years. He is talented enough to do that.

“Gary’s game … when he plays good, real good, he can play like Tiger. With his length, he can overpower a course and dominate. I’m proud of him. He went through a lot. He changed 14 clubs and his golf ball, changed his management, changed coaches. There was a lot going on, and at the same time, everybody is expecting you to play good. You lose confidence. This game is not easy.”

And certainly what Woodland went through and weathered impacted not only his scores, but his emotional well-being as well. Parting ways with Randy Smith, who’d been a mentor and something of a second father figure, wasn’t easy on him. But time has helped to heal, and Woodland seems at peace.

“I realize that to get to where you want to be, you have to do things for yourself, and you have to make sure you’re making the right decisions,” he said. “And you have to live with those decisions. I’m 100 percent OK with that.

“Look, I’m a Midwest guy. I don’t like making people sad. I don’t like hurting people. You want to do things for other people, too, but sometimes you have to realize you have to do things to make yourself better. I’m great with where I am now. I’m happy. I realize I’m getting better. You’ve got to win little battles, and then the wins on the golf course will come.”

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