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Nice Guys Finish First: Woodland Unseats Koepka As U.S. Open Champ

Gary Woodland

(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Until he came strolling down the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach on Sunday, Gary Woodland was probably known more outside the golf world for his big heart.

In January at the Phoenix Open, Woodland struck up a friendship with Special Olympian Amy Bockerstette. In a video organized by the PGA, Bockerstette, Woodland and Matt Kuchar were paired to play the par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale.

Bockerstette hit her tee shot into the bunker, but after telling Woodland she was OK, she banged out of the trap within 12 feet on the hole. Then she made her putt for par.

Woodland high-fived and hugged her, a scene that played out with genuine feeling for many days on social media.  The two have become friends. In fact, they will be appearing together on “Today” on Tuesday morning.

“She’s meant everything for me from a mental standpoint,” Woodland said on Sunday. “The world needs more of her in it. Her attitude, her love for life, love for the game and her positive energy is so contagious. And I’ve had the pleasure to continue to speak with her. She sent me a nice video when I got sick and had to pull out of Wells Fargo. She sent me an amazing birthday video, singing happy birthday to me. She’s a special girl, special parents, and it’s nice to call her a friend.”

Among the game’s fraternity, Woodland’s reputation was that of a great golfer waiting for the opportunity to show his skill and mettle on a great stage. And that’s where he was over the weekend at the U.S. Open.

Imagine what he must have been thinking as he played the back nine on Sunday. Although he was playing a hole behind him, Woodland could tell two-time defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka was in hot pursuit, anxious to become the first to win three straight Open titles since Scottish immigrant Willie Anderson completed his trifecta in 1905.

Perhaps he culled some inspiration from what Bockerstette has come to mean to him. But what’s clear was Woodland held off the charge to win his first Major championship. Until Sunday, his best finish among his 30 Major appearances was sixth at the 2018 PGA Championship.

In the end, Woodland, who lead after the third round, won by three strokes, not allowing Koepka to get any closer than one back. He ended the day with a two-under 69 and a 72-hole total of 271.

“Played aggressive, and it paid off,” Woodland said. “Didn’t ever let myself think the tournament was over.”

Koepka, who won the PGA championship last month, had won four of his last eight Majors. He’s finished first or second at his last four.

Amy Bockerstette

(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images for LPGA)

Woodland faced some early heat on Sunday when Justin Rose drew even with him with a birdie on the first hole. But Rose bogeyed No. 2 and soon the attention shifted to Koepka, without question the best player on the tour at the moment.

Woodland had blown the last seven leads he’d held heading into the final round and that was one of the reasons many suspected Koepka would eventually pass him. And by the time Koepka was on the 12th tee he’d pulled within one.

“All right, man, we’ve got a ballgame now,” Koepka said. “Props to him for the way he hung in there.”

After it was over, Woodland admitted playing with Tiger Woods in the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship taught him a great lesson in how to control his emotions during times of extreme pressure.

Woods closed with a 69 to finish tied for 21st at two under.

Woodland won $2.25 million, $90,000 more than Koepka’s pot last season. He also earned 100 World Ranking points which can earn him invitations to World Gold Championships. He is already ranked No. 25 in the world.

Woodland also earned a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Open, a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and a five-year exemption into the Masters, British Open and PGA.

It’s been quite the journey for a guy who originally dreamed of playing in the NBA. He played collegiately at Washburn University, but his aspirations changed after his team played top-ranked Kansas.

“I was guarding Kirk Hinrich (a former NBA player) and, was like, ‘OK, I need to find something else, because this ain’t gonna work,'” he said Sunday. “And that was my first game in college. I was a two-time State champion, All-State, blah, blah, blah, but that was a different level.”