Phoenix Open helped Gary Woodland get past toughest year of life

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 04: Gary Woodland holds his son, Jaxson, after winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on February 4, 2018 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images) Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Phoenix Open helped Gary Woodland get past toughest year of life

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Phoenix Open helped Gary Woodland get past toughest year of life

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Golf agent Mark Steinberg barked: “Get him to the driving range! No media.”

“There’s going to be a playoff,” caddie Brennan Little whispered.

Steinberg’s client and Little’s player, Gary Woodland, had just walked off the 18th green at the 2018 Waste Management Phoenix Open after tapping his ball in for a par to finish -18 for the tournament.

He was in first place, on the verge of winning his first PGA Tour event in four years. His closest competition, former ASU golfer Chez Reavie, had just bogeyed the par-3 16th to fall two shots behind. Woodland was in the driver’s seat.

“I hadn’t won in a long time, but the people around me didn’t let me think about the lead,” Woodland said.

Steinberg, the most notable agent in the sport, saw distractions closing in from the rear view mirror. The 17th and 18th holes on the Stadium Course both offer birdie opportunities, and Reavie had hundreds of thousands of the loudest fans in golf cheering him on.

“It would have been easy to sit down and think about all that comes with a win, but I was able to get to the range and prepare,” Woodland said. “I probably hit more balls before the round and after the round.”

Little was right. Reavie birdied his final two holes. The crowd was going bonkers. There would be a playoff.

But Woodland, 34, had become all too familiar with the distractions that his agent and caddie were trying to protect him from. The year before, Woodland endured the “toughest year” of his life. Pressure putts and negative swing thoughts were the least of his concerns.

Nightmare off the course

Woodland had a solid 2017 season. He finished fourth at the RBC Canadian Open and navigated his way through the playoffs to reach the Tour Championship tournament.

But off the course, he was living through a nightmare.

In March of that year, Woodland withdrew from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Days later, he announced that his wife, Gabby, who was pregnant with twins, had lost one of the children due to complications.

Three months later, Gabby gave birth to their son Jaxson 10 weeks premature.

Gabby and Jaxson spent much of the months that followed in the hospital. The little one’s condition weighed heavily on Woodland as he continued playing.

Over time, Jaxson’s health began to mirror his father’s game. Both gradually improved. Jaxson was released from the hospital. Woodland was a playoff hole away from capturing a win that had eluded him for years.

And as the Kansas Jawhawk made a short putt to beat the Sun Devil and win the Phoenix Open, Jaxson and Gabby rushed out to the green to share the moment with him.

“Seeing my son come out onto the green surprised me. I didn’t even know he was there,” Woodland said.

Jaxson had been traveling with the family. But because of all he’d gone through, his parents were hesitant to expose him to large, loud crowds.

Matt Kuchar creates a special moment

But fellow father and golfer Matt Kuchar saw an opportunity to help create a special family moment. While Woodland was still focusing on closing out the tournament, Kuchar had driven to the hotel Jaxson was staying at, picked him up and brought him to TPC Scottsdale.

“It meant more than I can ever explain, having my family there. The emotions just kind of boiled over and got the best of me. You don’t plan for that,” Woodland said. “That was something I’ll never forget.”

The win in Phoenix was a benchmark moment for Woodland and also the beginning of his next chapter. He put the tumultuous 2017 behind him and played solidly in 2018, finishing with four top-20 finishes in the final two months of the season, including a sixth-place finish at the PGA Championship.

He’s also enjoying fatherhood and his son’s improving health.

“He’s doing great. He’s walking and talks a bunch and is into everything right now,” Woodland said. “He’s honestly a miracle with all that he’s been through.”

This year, Woodland’s goals are even loftier.

“I’m excited about playing more consistent, I’d love to win multiple times this season,” he said. “My main goal is to contend on Sundays of major championships.”

Ready to make at prime years

Some envisioned bigger things for the big-hitting, two-time tour winner by this point in his career. But a PGA Tour golfer’s early and mid-30s are typically his prime years, and Woodland is committed to making the most of them.

He played basketball in college before transferring to Kansas to focus on golf. His athletic build and dedication to fitness exemplify the physical evolution of the golfer.

Woodland also carries himself cordially and with a friendly outlook. He likes meeting new people, reuniting with old buddies and, most importantly, forging strong alliances. His team includes Steinberg, renowned swing coach Butch Harmon and putting guru Phil Kenyon. Plus, Woodland isn’t afraid to ask tour veterans like Tiger Woods for advice.

“He’s really become a mentor for a lot of guys,” Woodland said. “You can ask Tiger anything. He’s way more revealing in conversations than he is his press conferences, and that’s pretty special for me.”

Woodland has even added one of Woods’ signature shots, the stinger, a screaming; low-rolling draw, into his repertoire. The new shot is raising eyebrows on social media and helped Woodland to a second-place finish at the PGA Tournament of Champions in January.

Hoping to build on his early success and make the Presidents Cup team Woods will be captaining this year, will return to the Valley to defend his title this year. He’ll be up against a field that includes Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson.

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