Gary Woodland’s first professional victory came in the 2008 Southwest Kansas Pro-Am, with a sudden death playoff victory over Nathan Lashley and Steve Gotsche.
That proved to be the launching pad for what has now become one of the top careers of any professional golfer who has called the state of Kansas home — which includes a recent U.S. Open championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links in June.
This story is how that stellar career got off the ground.
A talented, multi-sport athlete at Shawnee Heights High School in Topeka, Woodland drew many offers to play college basketball while receiving one scholarship offer for golf, that coming from then veteran Kansas University coach Ross Randall.
That was in 2002 when Woodland was considering his options for his athletic pursuit in college, so it was with some mystery and intrigue when Woodland shared his story in October, 2014, when he spoke at the Kansas Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Randall in Lawrence.
“I called coach Randall to tell him that I was excited to play college basketball and there was this silence on the other end,” Woodland said of that difficult conversation. “It was so long I had to ask him if he was still on the line.
“Coach Randall said, ‘Gary, I think you’re making a huge mistake. I truly believe you have a huge future in this game (golf) after college. Call me in a year – I’ll expect your phone call in a year.’ Then he hung up on me.”
Woodland would enroll at Washburn University in Topeka and play basketball for the NCAA Division II Ichabods his freshman season. But at the end of that school year, he was back on the telephone, just as the veteran KU coach had predicted.
“I called him up and said, ‘Coach, I’d love to come to Kansas and play golf for you,” Woodland said in that Hall of Fame speech. “Coach Randall said he thought I could help the team and that I would have every opportunity to contribute.”
What got lost through the years is that in his first season, Woodland first missed qualifying for one of four spots available on the five-man roster in the season opener.
“Now, I’m not playing and I’m not very happy,” Woodland recalled. “Coach told me that I had my opportunity and that I hadn’t taken advantage of that. He said that everybody gets opportunities in life and to this day I’ve tried to keep that in mind and take advantage of those.”
In his next opportunity, Woodland was able to enter the event as an individual, finishing in the top 10 and then landing a spot as the No. 2 player for the Jayhawks. He won the next tournament by eight shots and played in the No. 1 slot after that.
“Coach said that should serve as a lesson that you need to get better every day,” Woodland said of his late coach, who passed away in early 2018 after a lengthy illness. “His impact on me is unbelievable. For somebody who has given me so much, he’s never asked for everything except for a return phone call.”
At that point in Woodland’s talk, his former coach said, “Just be sure to answer the phone!”
At that point in his career, Woodland had two PGA Tour wins – the 2011 Transitions Championship and 2013 Reno-Tahoe Open. Things took an upturn after that season, and despite several setbacks of injury and family tragedy, Woodland has persevered and now has put his game at its highest level since turning pro in 2007.
Through the years, many of the talented young professional golfers who would go onto fame later in their careers played in the Pro-Am, now the longest consecutive running professional men’s golf tournament in Kansas.
Players such as U.S. Open champions Jim Furyk, Steve Jones, Lee Janzen and other major champions like Stewart Cink and Tom Weiskopf (Open), Bruce Vaughan (Sr. British Open) among a list of luminaries.
While each of those has made his own imprint on the golf world over the past 40 years, perhaps none has been more welcomed and admired than Woodland, who came here to play in the Pro-Am in his first season as a pro and walked off with the $17,500 first-place check after a stirring sudden death playoff win over Lashley and Gotsche.
There have been a number of Kansans who have won the Pro-Am through the four decades – Vaughan of Hutchinson owns the most with four titles; Chris Thompson, Ryan Vermeer, Jesse Schulte, Bryan Norton, Rod Nuckolls – but none have attained the prominence over a longer period of time on the PGA Tour than Woodland.
Four regular tour victories put him in a well-established category, which has resulted in a career with more than $25 million in earnings.
Not only did Woodland capture American’s premier championship, he did so at historic Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Monterey (Calif.) peninsula, regarded as one of the top two or three courses in the world and one of the most scenic courses anywhere. Plus, he did so by holding off Brooks Koepka, who has been the latest hot golfer, having captured two U.S. Opens (2017-18) and a pair of PGA Championships (2018-19).
Such a win is a life-changing moment for a professional golfer, and no matter what Woodland does from this point forward in his career, the 35-year-old Topeka native will likely always recall his first professional win in a way that can only be appreciated after more than a decade of chasing greatness on golf’s highest competitive stage.
Woodland added the 2018 Waste Management Open in Phoenix to his victory list. A number of other high finishes at the end of 2018 put Woodland in position to be a precursor of what is now his best season ever.
He finished tied for 11th at the prestigious Tour Championship last fall, the season-ending event; he was in a tie for 32nd at the Masters in April following a tie for 30th at The Players Championship in March. The steady play was exhibited at the May PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course where he tied for eighth. In this his best season, Woodland has eight top 10 finishes.
While all of these firsts have been fun for Woodland, he admitted at the block party in his honor in early July in Topeka that winning the U.S. Open was not the finish line for him.
“Obviously it’s nice to get the results and get that first major and get that monkey off the back — I never have to answer that question again,” Woodland said with a smile. “But I didn’t start just to win one time.”
To that end, Woodland said he believed his taste of the mountaintop would only fuel his desire to win more. And whether it’s nudges from his friends and family, instructions from his coaches or anyone else in his camp, Woodland believes he’s in the right place to maintain his focus.
“Fortunately I’ve surrounded myself with great people,” he said. “Coaches and agents and trainers, you name them, I have people around me that have pushed me and don’t let me settle.”
While most of those people have been in Woodland’s corner for a long time, some of them have been the players he competes against on the PGA Tour.
Their message to the newest member of the major winners’ club was simple.
“The big deal is to embrace it,” Woodland recalled of the message he heard from players like Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell and others.
His performance has catapulted him to 12th on the Official World Golf Ranking list just prior to this year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland in late July, where he was unable to make the weekend cut following rounds of 74-71. Still, it has been quite the ride since the win at Pebble Beach.
Appearances on many of the nightly network shows required a whirlwind tour in New York City the week following his first major title. Interviews and more interviews followed and he took a couple of weeks off before competing in Michigan at the Rocket Mortgage tournament, where he again missed the cut.
He has positioned himself to where he was ranked fifth in the PGA Tour’s Fed Ex chase and was fourth on the money list with more than $5.5 million in earnings this season. Looking ahead, there will be the possibility of earning a spot on the President’s Cup team and then the four majors of 2020 and a potential spot on the 2020 Ryder Cup team, a fall event slated to be contested against Europe at Whistling Straits Golf Club in Wisconsin.
All of this on course success has come at a time in Woodland’s life where his family is now No. 1 priority. With a young son already born two years ago, Woodland and his wife, Gabby, had twins, Maddox and Lennox, on Aug. 2. The 2017 birth of Jaxson came with tragedy as well, as the other twin did not survive the pregnancy.
Woodland’s success should not come as any surprise to Kansans who have followed him through his high school, college and professional career. Twice he won the state’s top amateur title, the Kansas Amateur Match Play Championship. His prodigious length off the tee consistently places him among the top 10 in driving distance, eagles and birdies made. Now, he has re-tooled his short game and that paid off dividends at Pebble Beach where he was among the top putters and strokes saved on the greens.
But he’s feeling more confident about his game than ever before. And when he looks at the U.S. Open trophy, which is on his nightstand, he’s reminded he can beat the best in the world.
“It’s been very close to me for the last month,” Woodland said of the trophy. “It’s on the nightstand so I can see it. You want to wake up and make sure it’s not a dream. You want to make sure it’s real. So, I was thinking about letting my parents have it this week, but I ended up keeping it.
“It’s at home. It’s right next to Gabby. She is looking at it all the time. I don’t know if she’s excited about that.”
Any professional golfer will tell you how difficult it is to win out on the PGA Tour. Woodland has been a steady performer for a decade, but the breakthrough major at Pebble Beach will forever change his place in the game. He is the first University of Kansas golfer to win a major and the first Kansan to do so since Mission Hills’ Tom Watson back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But if you visit with Woodland and mention Garden City and the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am, it will likely elicit a big smile on his face. It was 11 years ago this month that Woodland first forecasted his potential greatness with his first professional victory in the 2008 Southwest Kansas Pro-Am.