It took all of one swing from his playing partner that day for Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self to know that he was in for a treat.
Gary Woodland, a former KU golfer and now a PGA Tour professional who makes his debut this morning in Hawaii, had driven on the fly Lawrence Country Club’s first green, 359 yards from the tips.
“Made a 15-footer for two, then he made a birdie on 2, lipped out an eagle putt on 3,” Self remembered of the round that took place in 2007. “Four-under after three. Should have been 5-under.”
It was the only round Self played with Woodland. He saw enough that the golfer from Topeka’s fan base grew by one.
“What a nice guy,” Self said.
Many share that opinion. Woodland was honored during a timeout early in KU’s victory against Tennessee in Allen Fieldhouse. Athletic director Lew Perkins presented Woodland with an Adams Golf bag that had a Jayhawk emblazoned on it. The crowd dialed it up for him. Self was too busy talking to his team to notice, but he’ll never forget the way Woodland crushed his drives.
“The thing about these young guys is they just hit the ball so far it’s a joke,” Self said. “Even to hit it that far, to be one of the longest guys in the world, to me it still all comes down to whether he can make putts.”
Woodland made enough of them, most notably an 18-footer on the third-to-last hole of a six-round final qualifying stage, to pull off what routinely is called one of the most difficult feats in golf by surviving Q-school and earning his tour card.
Woodland’s first swing as a member of the tour comes at 8:30 a.m. Hawaii time (12:30 p.m. in Lawrence) today. The Golf Channel’s coverage of the Sony Open at Walalae Country Club in Honolulu starts about the time Woodland should be playing his last few holes, so if he’s having a good first day, he might get face time.
“It’ll be great for golf in Lawrence,” Alvamar Country Club head pro Randy Towner said. “He’s our Tiger Woods here in Lawrence.”
Everyone seems to remember the first time they played with Woodland.
“The initial thing is, Gary just hits the golf ball so far and swings so easy,” Towner said. “I told him, ‘You’re like a talking seal. There just aren’t many of you out there.’ It’s just so exciting that he made it because the odds of that happening are just so nil. They say it’s the most grueling thing you can go through.
“Winning a golf tournament is one thing, but you’ve already made it, pretty much, when you’re winning golf tournaments because you’ve accumulated some wealth along the way, and part of the pressure’s off. (Qualifying), you’re talking about, that’s your big interview, and it lasts for six days, and every shot, or every answer you give, is your livelihood at least for the next year and could be for the rest of your life.”
Towner said the one time he tried to qualify, he made it out of the first of three phases and missed making it to the final phase by one shot.
Lawrence Country Club pro Jon Zylstra, another Woodland fan, said he never attempted to qualify: “I was too old and too married.”
No sweat. All Lawrence golfers now can play the tour vicariously through Woodland.