University of Kansas

Pebble Chalk, Jayhawk: Gary Woodland breaks through for first major win at U.S. Open

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.

Even as he watched former KU golfer Gary Woodland take the lead starting on Friday at the U.S. Open, Self refrained from sending his buddy a text message.

“There’s been times where I’ve tried to stay in touch throughout tournaments and whatnot, but he was playing so well,” Self said Sunday. “I wasn’t going to jinx anything.”

The Hall of Fame coach didn’t. And Woodland — in his 13th season as a professional — won his first major championship on Sunday.

It took tons of composure to get there.

Woodland, a Topeka native, held off a late charge by Brooks Koepka, winning the U.S. Open by three strokes with a 13-under on Sunday afternoon at the Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California.

“It was special,” Woodland said on the Fox television broadcast. “I never let myself get ahead, and I never really thought the tournament was over.”

This makes history. Woodland, who golfed for the Jayhawks from 2003-07, became the first KU alumnus to ever win a PGA major tournament.

He also had Self hooked; the coach went directly to his office after a Sunday practice, watching all of Woodland’s shots on his TV.

“Thing about it is, he beat Koepka when Koepka was at his best. That’s what’s so cool,” Self said. “Koepka, the best player in the world, was coming hard and playing unreal, and Gary just hung in there and just was able to hold him off.”

Woodland managed to finish strong after leading the tournament following the second and third days.

The 35-year-old Woodland had to recalibrate after his round started to waver on the par-4 ninth Sunday. After posting just two bogeys in his first 62 holes of the tournament, Woodland had to lay up after his tee shot into the rough left of the fairway. He settled for bogey after missing a 9-foot par putt to the right.

More trouble followed at the par-3 12th. Woodland’s tee shot went to the right of a greenside bunker, and he later missed a 21-foot par try to go to 11-under with his lead dropping to one stroke over Koepka.

He recovered right after that, though. Woodland deftly saved par after hitting his tee shot well right on the par-4 No. 13, managing to hit the green in regulation before two-putting.

Then, on the par-5 No. 14, Woodland launched his second shot 255 yards with a 3-wood to the fringe of the green, giving him a signature moment before he two-putted for birdie to regain a two-shot advantage.

“I refocused a little bit, hit a great shot there — the second shot on 14,” Woodland said during his television interview. “The idea was to play to win. It was pretty easy. I could have laid up there. We decided to hit 3-wood. ... That birdie kind of separated me a little bit.”

Woodland held from that point on, going par-par-par the next three holes before sinking a long birdie putt with a two-stroke lead on the par-5 No. 18 to seal the victory. He even heard some “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” chants from the gallery after his shots on the final hole, with his mother, Linda, becoming emotional after the final putt while wearing a KU jacket.

“I don’t think anybody in the world played as good as Gary this week,” Koepka said during his post-round TV interview.

Woodland first started his college career as a basketball player for Division II Washburn in Topeka before transferring after his first year to play golf at KU.

That (final putt) was a three-pointer from deep with the game on the line. Gary could always hit big shots,” said Bob Chipman, Woodland’s basketball coach at Washburn in 2002-03.

Woodland, a two-sport star at Shawnee Heights High in Topeka, actually played in an exhibition game against KU in Allen Fieldhouse during the 2002-03 season.

Self said there are no doubts Woodland made the right career choice.

“He could have played basketball until he was 22, then retired,” Self said with a laugh. “And now he can play golf until hopefully he’s 50-plus, then retire whenever he wants to.”

Justin Rose, who was in the final pairing with Woodland, shot a 3-over on Sunday to drop to a tie for third at 7-under. Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm and Chez Reavie also finished at 7-under.

Woodland, who took home $2.25 million with the win, previously had his best major finish last year, tying for sixth at the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.

Self couldn’t help but think about the big-picture ramifications for Woodland, who lives in Lawrence. Following Sunday’s result, Woodland could potentially be a candidate for the United States in both the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.

“I’m sure it’ll be life-changing for him,” Self said. “I doubt it changes him, but I’m sure there are going to be so many more opportunities with this.

“It certainly elevates him to one of the elite players in the world, which I think everybody around here that knows him obviously knows that he’s had talent to be that, but just hasn’t quite gotten it done yet.”

Self, who said he basically “didn’t move” for the final three hours of Woodland’s round, had to hurry back to the Fieldhouse on Sunday night to help with his basketball camp.

The coach said he was happy to have watched Woodland’s historic day — while also feeling good about not supplying any unnecessary hex either.

“Not that that has anything to do with it, but if we’re playing really well, I don’t want people to text me either in certain situations till it’s over,” Self said with a laugh. “But yeah, that was unbelievable.”

The Star’s Blair Kerkhoff contributed to this story.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.
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