Former KU golfer Gary Woodland on verge of history while maintaining lead at U.S. Open

Gary Woodland claims first major championship at U.S. Open

Gary Woodland won his first major at the U.S. Open on Sunday.
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Gary Woodland won his first major at the U.S. Open on Sunday.

Former University of Kansas golfer Gary Woodland is 18 holes away from a monumental achievement.

Woodland, a Topeka native, held it together Saturday with bold plays and two unlikely pars for a 2-under 69 at the U.S. Open, moving him to 11-under which gave him a 1-shot lead over Justin Rose at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California. With that, Woodland will be making his first appearance in the final group of a major on Sunday.

It would be history if Woodland can finish it out; no KU alumnus has ever won a PGA major tournament. Woodland, who will be in the final pairing with Rose again Sunday, will tee off at 4:30 p.m. Central.

Lurking is Brooks Koepka (7-under), who played bogey-free for a 68 to give himself a shot at a record that has stood for 114 years as he tries to join Willie Anderson with a third straight U.S. Open title.

Also standing in the way is Pebble Beach, a strong enough test that has been missing strong wind, its best defense.

The final hour of the third round gave a glimpse of possibilities, how fortunes can change quickly. Woodland twice looked as though he were about to lose 2 shots or more of his lead until chipping in from 35 feet on the par-3 12th hole, and holing a par putt from just over 40 feet on the par-5 14th.

“I’m excited to be where I’m at right now,” Woodland said.

He was at 11-under 202 and with hardly any margin for error against Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion at Merion who birdied the 18th for a 68. Rose got up-and-down from a bunker, the 34th time in 54 holes at Pebble that he had a 1-putt green.

For the third straight day, a thick marine layer covered the Monterey Peninsula and kept Pebble Beach from getting even faster than it was. Shadows arrived, but only briefly. It still presented a solid test, making this U.S. Open rare in the limited number of complaints. Even Phil Mickelson had praise for the USGA.

Woodland, who led by 2 to start the third round, stretched it to as many as 4 shots when Rose shanked a bunker shot from in front of the par-3 fifth green, and Woodland followed with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 sixth.

That ended with a 2-shot swing on the tough eighth hole, where Rose birdied from 10 feet and Woodland took 3 putts from the back of the green, ending his amazing streak of 34 straight holes without a bogey.

And then came his biggest two shots, both for par.

Woodland thought his tee shot on the 12th was pure, even twirling his club as it descended. It came up short and in a nasty spot in the wispy, shin-high grass. Gripping the club at the shaft, he shanked it to the right into light rough. With Rose inside 10 feet for birdie, it looked like a 2-shot swing at the very least.

And then Woodland holed it, slamming his fist, a rare show of emotion for one of golf’s coolest customers.

“I was trying to avoid the big number,” Woodland said. “Take your medicine and move on. Nice that it went in.”

Ditto for the par-5 14th, where he got out of position off the tee. The thick grass right of the fairway grabbed his club and sent his second shot into more rough so deep that he had to play short of the green. Then, he hit his wedge too short and was lucky it stayed on the top shelf instead of rolling back to the fairway.

“I just tried to nestle it up close,” Woodland said about his long par putt.

He holed that, too, and kept Rose at a distance.

Woodland, 34, had his best major finish last year, tying for sixth at the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. He golfed at KU from 2003-07.

Rose has been magical with his wedges and putter all week, saving routine pars and tough ones. He was careless with a putt from just short of the 13th green and missed the 4-foot comebacker. He missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th. But he finished with a birdie, leaving him 1 shot closer.

“One back gives me the freedom to feel like I’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose,” Rose said. “I’m not chasing, really, I’m so close to Gary that I have to go out and play my game tomorrow.”

Koepka had some theatrics of his own, misjudging a lie in the rough so deep he could barely see the golf ball left of the 15th green. It sailed long into the first cut, some 35 feet away, and he holed the putt for par to keep a clean card.

He was part of a group 4 shots back that included Louis Oosthuizen, who birdied three of his last four holes to salvage a 70; and Chez Reavie, who made his share of long par putts for a 68.

Koepka won at Erin Hills in 2017 with his power and at Shinnecock Hills last year with his clutch putting. He might need a little of both to make up a 4-shot deficit at Pebble Beach, though he brings the most recent experience handling the pressure of a final round in a major. He is going for his fifth major title in his last nine tries, a stretch not seen since Tiger Woods at his peak.

“I just enjoy the pressure,” Koepka said. “I enjoy having to hit a good golf shot, making a putt when the pressure is on. If you’re within 3 on the back nine, anything can happen. Hang around all day and see what happens.”

Curtis Strange, the last player with a shot at three straight U.S. Opens, also shot 68 in the third round in 1990 and got within 2 shots, only to fade with a 75 on the final day.

Rory McIlroy didn’t get enough out of how well he hit the ball and had to settle for a 70, leaving him 5 shots behind.

As for Woods, he joined a list of big names who went the wrong direction. Woods had a 71 and was 11 shots behind. Dustin Johnson also had a 71 and was 9 back. Mickelson saw his career Grand Slam hopes vanish at sea when he hit driver in the Pacific on the 18th hole and made triple bogey for a 75.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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.