University of Kansas

What life’s been like for KU alum Gary Woodland since winning his first major

Gary Woodland had been at the microphone less than three minutes when all the emotions hit him at once.

His voice cracked. He had to look down to compose himself.

Woodland’s hometown — Topeka — had blocked off downtown streets on Tuesday night to throw a celebration in his honor.

And now, looking at the more than 1,000 who had shown up, Woodland fully realized the significance of his roots.

“I’ll never forget where I came from,” Woodland told the crowd Tuesday night, “and I’ll never forget who I am.”

The truth for Woodland: Keeping this perspective had never been tougher than in the last two weeks.

What’s happened lately

Woodland, who played golf at the University of Kansas from 2003-07, broke through on June 16 to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach for his first major championship.

Here’s a sampling of how his life has changed since then:

• He’s received congratulatory messages from childhood idols like Charles Barkley and Chris Paul

• He’s spent an entire day in New York City doing media interviews non-stop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• He’s gotten advice from guys like Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson on how they handled winning their first major tournaments

Oh, and to add to it, his wife Gabby is in the hospital, where she’s about to deliver identical twin girls.

“It’s been a little bit overwhelming,” Woodland said during a press conference before Tuesday’s block party, “but it’s been really, really cool.”

‘It’s not a dream’

There are times that much of what happened still doesn’t feel real. Just a few weeks ago, Woodland was often known for his almost-wins, with TV announcers often repeating the fact that he was 0-7 as a professional when leading after 54 holes.

That narrative changed this time. Woodland held off the world’s top golfer — Brooks Koepka — at the U.S. Open to win by three strokes, becoming the first KU alum to ever win a PGA major tournament.

The victory sank in most the next morning; when Woodland woke up, the U.S. Open Championship Trophy was still sitting on his nightstand.

“It was like, ‘It’s real,’” Woodland said. “’It’s not a dream.’”

After missing the cut at last week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, the 35-year-old Woodland has the next two weeks off, saying it’s needed both physically and mentally. He’ll then play in the British Open July 18-21 in Ireland and the World Golf Championships in Memphis before the FedEx Cup playoffs begin in August.

The goal for Woodland now is to make sure this year’s U.S. Open doesn’t represent the peak of his career.

“I didn’t play (golf) and I didn’t start just to win one time,” Woodland said. “I have a long way to go. I have a lot to improve, but my game’s definitely trending in the right direction. I’m becoming a more complete player where I believe I can compete more week in, week out, especially in major championships.”

A KU basketball guest

Woodland’s training will continue in the next few weeks. On the suggestion of Woods, he has taken up swimming as his main source of cardio, with the exercise reducing stress on both his back and knees.

There’s been time for checking in on the alma mater as well. Woodland, who lives in Lawrence, said he’d attended Tuesday’s KU basketball practice to get an early look at the team. He also was asked by a reporter to predict whether he or KU coach Bill Self would be the next to win “a big one.”

“I have a lot more opportunities before he does, so hopefully me,” Woodland said with a laugh. “ ... I think they’re going to be pretty good this year, so I need to get on it pretty quick.”

The golf grind, for an evening, could wait. Woodland was back home in Topeka on Tuesday, receiving an honorary key to the city while also learning that June 16, 2019 — the day he won the U.S. Open — had officially been declared “Gary Woodland Day.”

The world’s 12th-ranked golfer smiled most of the event, looking out from the stage to see just how many people he had impacted with his recent success.

“I worked my whole life and dreamed my whole life of being a professional athlete,” Woodland said. “But I never dreamed of this.”

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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.