Heavy hitter Woodland enjoys meteoric climb
Scuffling around the Royal St. George's links, Gary Woodland found himself 7-over par after four holes on the second day of the British Open - perilously close to an early trip back across the Atlantic Ocean.
From there, he racked up four birdies and parred the other 10 holes and, suddenly, he ended with a hard-fought 68 for the day. He made the 71-player cut on the 3-over number, extending his weekend and putting him as much in the running as anybody else in what was a scrunched-up field.
The way he came out of nowhere to make the cut sort of mirrors the way he qualified for his first British Open.
Sort of. On a very, very small scale.
Woodland, who shot a 4-over 74 in the rain Saturday, is ranked 42nd in the world and might climb a spot or two as he comes home. He was 10th in the PGA Tour's FedExCup standings and 13th on the money list entering the weekend, making $2,381,229.
He will compete at The Greenbrier Classic, where practice rounds begin July 25, and he'll be one of the highest-ranked players there. Considering where he was when he last stepped onto the Old White course, it's astounding.
A year ago, the Topeka, Kan., native was a mere face in the crowd, somebody trying desperately to hang onto his Tour card. As it turns out, he was working on a major medical exemption, granted after his 2009 shoulder surgery. That was running out fast last July, and he didn't help his cause by missing the cut at Old White.
He ran out of Tour events on that exemption. He didn't come close to the Nationwide Tour's top 25 money winners, either, or even the top 75 required to stay on that tour.
With that, Woodland was off to qualifying school, which is not so much a school as a multi-round grind with a four-digit entry fee for each level. He won his card back in December by finishing 11th in the final round of "Q school," a six-round, 126-hole test of survival.
So there he was entering 2011, a PGA Tour "veteran rookie" with 15 missed cuts in 26 starts and an astronomical world ranking of 588th. He started the season several notches in the "reshuffle" list, which often fills out the last spots in a tournament. Simply put, golfers on that list play in whatever tournaments they can get into.
Woodland missed the cut in his first outing, the Sony Open in Hawaii. But something wonderful had happened, and better results were on the way.
"First of all, I'm healthy," he said last week from Scotland, en route to the British Open. "I keep getting better, my confidence gets better with every week. That turns into a good recipe."
When the Tour returned to the mainland, the milestones started coming. The next week, he was tied for second at the Bob Hope Classic in California, raking in $440,000.
To start February, he went fifth at Phoenix. When the Florida swing began in March, he was sixth at the Honda Classic. Two weeks later, he hit paydirt, winning the Transitions Championship at Tampa.
The $990,000 paycheck pushed him past the $1.5 million mark, and he won a spot in the Masters and sailed up the Tour's FedExCup points list. But this biggest payoff was a winner's exemption for the rest of 2011, 2012 and 2013. He fled the reshuffle list.
"That was all a huge relief," he said. "It meant that I have a job for two years, and allowed me to pick my schedule. Now, I can rest when I want, so I'm more prepared to play."
He even cracked the Official World Golf Ranking's top 50 briefly. He fell to 52nd on May 22, a date defined as a qualifying deadline for the British Open. But he made that major on another criterium, being one of the PGA Tour's top three points leaders outside of the world top 50.
Two weeks later, he played at the Memorial Tournament near Columbus, Ohio - an event he may or may not have made from the reshuffle list - and finished sixth. That put him well enough into the world's top 50 that he could withdraw from the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier, berth in hand.
Woodland has the luxury of skipping the Canadian Open next week in Vancouver on the west coast, and coming in fresh to White Sulphur Springs. He said he is looking forward to a return to the resort, and he might even sneak over to the Black Eyes Peas concert.
But he seems more of a country fan. "I went to Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood," he said of his 2010 visit. "Brad Paisley was awesome; Brad puts on a phenomenal show."
Back on the course, he is one of the big sluggers on the Tour, and that's where his shoulder injury hurt the most. It cut his 2009 rookie season short after 18 starts, and required surgery.
Now 100 percent, he was averaging 306.6 yards per drive entering the British Open, sixth on the Tour. His long drive is 409 yards, second on the circuit, and he is fifth in drives of 300 yards or more (45.57 percent). He is second in a "going for the green" stat, usually hitting the green on the second shot of a par-5.
He was hitting just over 60 percent of fairways on his drives, about middle of the pack but well above his 53 percent of 2009. He seems to be more on-target on par-3 shots, as he was third in birdies on those holes.
In other words, his power is back and his accuracy is improving by the week. And his shoulder no longer seems to be an issue.
"I can swing how I used to," he said. "And now it's really nice to know where it's going."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.