LAWRENCE, Kan. – No one in Gary Woodland’s audience at Alvamar Country Club on June 16 seemed too surprised to see him hit balls over the back of the landscaping at the end of the driving range and into the 11th hole. Woodland, a notoriously fit player and long hitter on the PGA Tour, cranked balls for close to an hour on a windy Monday afternoon as part of a pre-tournament clinic for the AJGA Under Armour/Gary Woodland Championship.
A day removed from a T-52 finish in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Woodland talked ball-striking, course management and shaping shots – particularly the go-to cut he kept hitting to the back of the range.
“Take what God gave you,” Woodland said by way of advice to the crowd. “God blessed me with a cut and that’s what I’m going with.”
Woodland grew up in nearby Topeka, Kan., and spent the first part of a week off on Tour speaking to the 96-player field at his namesake Under Armour event. He’s one of five PGA Tour players to sponsor such a junior tournament with the AJGA.
When Woodland had the opportunity to bring an AJGA event back to his roots, he jumped at it. Alvamar sits just a few miles from the University of Kansas campus, where Woodland played three years of collegiate golf after a brief turn on the Washburn University basketball team.
“It’s awesome to show the kids where I come from,” Woodland said, “and get a little Midwest hospitality.”
That, and a little Midwest wind. The trees rustled constantly on Monday during the practice round and clinic as the wind gusted close to 30 mph. It’s all Woodland knew growing up in nearby Topeka.
“The conditions, you never knew what you were going to get in Kansas so it makes you a little mentally tougher, which is good,” he said.
Back then, the AJGA schedule wasn’t nearly as extensive. The AJGA came to town in 2001, setting up shop at Milburn Country Club in nearby Overland Park, Kan., and Woodland signed up to play. It was his only AJGA event, and rounds of 76-74-76 left him tied for 31st.
For the early part of his junior golf career, Woodland’s approach to golf was low-key. He was the kid whose mother dropped him off at Shawnee Country Club in the mornings to play golf with his buddies.
“I was pretty good, but I was never great,” Woodland remembers. “There were a lot of kids better than me,”
Woodland wasn’t a highly recruited player, and thus his stopover at Washburn as a Division II collegiate basketball player is one of the most notable parts of his story. Aspiring collegiate golfers, like the players in the Under Armour field, often specialize in only golf throughout their teenage years. Woodland’s path gave him an edge, and also helped take the pressure away from golf.
“In golf, you don’t win all the time,” he said. “In basketball, I learned how to win.”
At the end of Woodland’s Monday clinic, he entered a closest-to-the-pin contest with four golfers plucked from the field. Each hit two shots into Alvamar’s ninth hole from about 100 yards. Woodland dropped his a few feet over the pin, and players cheered as they checked back near the hole.
After Woodland, the next-closest shots belonged to Brooke Nolte, a 16-year-old from Melissa, Texas. Even though Nolte and her father Bill have been attending Wednesday practice rounds at the Byron Nelson Championship near their home for years, it was her first time hitting balls next to a Tour player.
“It was amazing because he was once in our position,” she said.
There are 24 Kansans in the field at Alvamar, which is one reason Woodland wanted to bring the event to this area. He’s already made a difference.
“Growing up, you didn’t have many of these opportunities,” he said. “… Just trying to give kids the opportunity, and that’s a big deal. Whether you were successful or not, at least you had that opportunity and you can build on it.”