When the cyst in her son’s left wrist finally ruptured, Linda Woodland was 200 yards away, standing amongst the fairway gallery on the eighth hole at Augusta National Golf Club.
She could sense the quiet whispers in the crowd. And she could hear the reports from the security personnel along the ropes. Something was wrong. But she couldn’t tell what.
This was the Masters, the most prestigious event in all of golf. And there was Gary Woodland, her son, doubled over in pain on the tee box as his round unraveled.
“It was painful to watch,” Linda says.
Woodland had arrived at the 2012 Masters with high hopes. He was coming off the most successful year of his professional career. He was taking his second crack at Augusta National, a course that suits his mashing style. Months earlier, he had begun working with renowned swing coach Butch Harmon, the man who had shepherded Tiger Woods to the sport’s pinnacle.
But on the eighth hole on Saturday, after making the cut, Woodland’s wrist would not hold up. He trudged through the rest of the round, playing through the excruciating pain on each shot. He shot a 13-over 85, and then headed straight for the hospital after the round.
This was the Masters, Woodland thought, and he had one more round in him. But his agent, Mark Steinberg, had other ideas. His client’s Masters was over.
Of course, if it was up to Woodland, he would have gritted through that final Sunday.
“Gary’s an athlete,” Linda Woodland says. “If he has an injury, he plays through it. He always has. All his life.”
Two years later, Woodland, a Topeka native and former Kansas standout, is preparing to head back to the Masters for the first time since that agonizing exit. His body is fully healthy now, and his mind is, too.
When Woodland arrived at Augusta in 2012, his path to stardom seemed predestined. He would win more tournaments. He would continue his rise up the rankings. He would continue to create the archetype for a new kind of golf star: The athlete-golfer.
Two years later, Woodland’s time might just be coming.
“I put a lot of work in,” Woodland said. “We’re starting to put it together.”
Professional golfers are not supposed to come from Topeka. They are not supposed to take this path. Professional golfers are not supposed to spend their childhoods crushing homers on baseball diamonds and draining threes at AAU basketball tournaments.
They are not supposed to play Division II basketball at a place such as Washburn or come from a Midwestern state where golf attire in April is often still turtlenecks and stocking caps.
More than any other sport, golf is a slave to tradition and its stodgy rulebook. The sport lends itself to a sort of tribalism, tilting toward the elite and the lifers. Outsiders are not to be trusted.
On the PGA Tour, among peers who spent thousands of hours on golf courses as kids, Gary Woodland is just that: An outsider.
“Gary is an athlete,” says Mike Dickerson, a long-time friend from Topeka. “A lot of the kids that play golf, they’re country-club brats. He’s not.”
This is not to say, of course, that Woodland was some all-state athlete who took up golf later in life. For Woodland, his golf career began before his first birthday, when he would accompany his father, Dan, to the course after work, dragging a club along the fairway.
When he was 3 years old, Dan and Linda Woodland cut down a set of women’s clubs and took little Gary to the driving range at the Topeka Sports Center. Even then, he would hit balls until his fingers started to bleed, only leaving when Dan forced him.
“My husband would have to throw him over his shoulder to get him out of there,” Linda says. “He’d go kicking and screaming.”
But for all the time Gary spent on the golf course, he truly loved team sports — the camaraderie, the competitiveness, the trust you forge with teammates. For years, the Woodlands thought their son would eventually settle on baseball. Blessed with Oak Tree legs and an easy coordination, Gary was built to hit home runs.
“He has such a strong lower base,” Dickerson says.
The same power translated to the golf course. Before he reached high school, Woodland would crush drives well past 300 yards. Among friends at the Topeka Country Club, there was an old joke:
How far can Gary hit a 7-iron? As far as he wants to.
In those days, though, Woodland was much more a masher than a golfer. He spent his winters leading Shawnee Heights High School to the Kansas state basketball tournament and his summers playing baseball. That left little time to perfect his short game or hone his putting skills.
One of his best friends, summer baseball teammate Joey Devine, would eventually pitch in the majors for the Oakland Athletics, and Linda always envisioned Gary playing college baseball and heading out into minor-league baseball.
But in the summer before his junior year of high school, Woodland led a local Topeka summer team to a national championship in Atlanta. And then he quit.
He was ready to focus on basketball and golf. Ready to play one year of both sports at Washburn. Ready to transfer to Kansas, where he would win four college golf tournaments. Ready, then, to take a run at the world’s best.
“We never made Gary do anything,” Linda says, “we always let him make his own decisions — his own choices. It was always his decision, so we’d just go with it.
“He just loved sports.”
It was late last summer when he sat down for his first session with a new performance coach. Gary Woodland had stuff he needed to hear, stuff he needed to sort through. He just wasn’t sure what it was.
In the past two years, he’d battled an assortment of injuries. His world ranking had plummeted. His first PGA Tour victory had come at the Transitions Championship in March 2011. He hadn’t won since.
He’d also dealt with professional turmoil. After a breakout season in 2011, Woodland signed with Steinberg, whose stable of golfers included Woods and Matt Kuchar. The only problem: Woodland’s former agent was Blake Smith, the son of Gary’s long-time swing coach and golf mentor, Randy Smith. The elder Smith soon dropped Gary, who carried the wounds of the split for months.
So in the week before the Reno-Tahoe Open last August, Gary had his first talk with Julie Elion, a sports psychologist who specializes in golf performance.
“He had been with Randy several years, and he just really respected him,” Linda says. “She just helped him get past that. And ever since then, he’s just been a whole different person.”
Maybe it was coincidence, of course. Nothing in golf can be this simple. But in the days after Woodland’s first session with Elion, he captured his second PGA Tournament event.
“I brought Julie Elion in the week I won,” Woodland said. “And she’s really got me back in a mental mind frame where I need to be.”
The ninth hole at Indian Hills Country Club in Mission Hills is a 383-yard par-4. Large pond in front of the green. Bunkers protecting the putting surface. To carry the water from the back tee box requires a drive of close to 350 yards — in the air.
Last summer, Woodland and Dickerson, his old friend from Topeka, found themselves on the ninth tee box while in the middle of a friendly round.
Woodland pulled driver, putting the ball on the green with ease. For a second, this was the old Gary.
“He obviously still bombs it a long ways,” Dickerson says, “but his swing has changed drastically.”
In the evolution of Woodland, there are things he needed to learn. He retooled his swing under the guidance of Harmon and his son, Claude. His sessions with Elion have given him a new peace of mind. And his body is cooperating now.
“I’m healthy,” Woodland said. “I mean, that’s a big key. But the game, I put a lot of hard work in. It’s been a process with the changes I’ve made, switching to Butch and his son, and it’s finally starting to come together, which is nice.”
Last week, Woodland dropped in at Augusta to play a couple of practice rounds. His parents are headed down next week for their third trip to the Masters. His sister, C.J., is slated to caddy for him in the par-3 tournament on Wednesday.
For a professional golfer, these are the weeks you live for. Especially when you’re playing well.
Woodland, who’s 29 now, has made the cut in nine of his last 10 tour events. He’s 20th in the FedEx Cup Standings, and he’s first on the tour in total driving. Now comes, at long last, another opportunity on golf’s biggest stage.
“It was hard,” Woodland says. “It was frustrating, especially to try to stick to the process when you’re going the other direction, it’s hard to stay with it…
“I put a lot of work in on the short game, a lot of work on the middle game, and we’re starting to put it together.”