Archive for Wednesday, May 18, 2011

PGA golfer Gary Woodland returns to roots

Pro golfer and former Kansas Jayhawk Gary Woodland practiced at the Lawrence Country Club on Tuesday, May 17, 2011. Woodland sat down with Lawrence Journal-World sports editor Tom Keegan to discuss golfing in Kansas.

May 18, 2011

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A silver-haired gentleman who has made his name in business never could win a dunk contest against Blake Griffin, but he could, for one hole at least, be twice as good as a young man who ranks 11th on the 2011 PGA Tour money list ($2,047,660) and sixth in average driving distance (301.9 yards). Just such a scenario played out Tuesday afternoon at Lawrence Country Club on an oh-so sunny, perfect day.

Therein lies one of the beauties of golf. Greatness, however fleeting, can be achieved by anybody, any time.

Laird Noller, playing with friends Bob Stephens, Bob Shmalberg and Frank Becker, pulled a 4-hybrid out of his bag and holed out from 168 yards away for an eagle on No. 18. Playing one foursome in back of them with Kansas University golf coach Kit Grove and fellow former KU golfers Jason Seeman and Jay Hepler, Gary Woodland lipped out a short chip shot and settled for a par on a hole that started with a drive of longer than 300 yards.

Woodland was happy for Noller, who plays to a respectable 15.6 handicap index, not envious of him. After all, he stayed with Noller and wife Karleen in Palm Desert in January when he played in the Bob Hope Classic and was edged by Jhonattan Vegas in a playoff. That’s when Woodland put himself high on the radar of golf analysts and companies looking to sponsor players they project to hog air time. He won the Transitions in Orlando, Fla., in March and has a fifth-place and sixth-place finish to his name. In April, he finished The Masters at two-under par, good for 24th.

“Completely different game from three years ago,” Grove said after finishing his round with Woodland. “So in control with every shot.”

Five of Woodland’s last eight tournament rounds were played with Phil Mickelson. He played two rounds with Tiger Woods. Tom Watson joined him for his practice round at Augusta National. And here was Woodland playing with his buddies at LCC during his week off. He will resume his tour schedule next week at the Byron Nelson Classic in Irving, Texas, but first he’ll play another round today at LCC with KU basketball coach Bill Self, assistant athletic director Sean Lester and Seeman.

Woodland took the time Tuesday to sit down and talk about the future of KU’s golf program, what playing at Kansas did for his game, how Augusta National suits his game and what he has gotten out of playing with golf’s biggest names.

“Phil’s been great,” Woodland said of Mickelson. “He’s given me a lot of confidence, talking about certain aspects of my game that he’s in love with. That’s great to hear from guys like that. You learn a lot playing with him. He doesn’t always do it pretty, but he knows what he’s doing out there and I think that’s the main deal.”

Woodland learns just from watching Mickelson think his way through a round.

“He knows the golf course,” Woodland said. “He’s got so much knowledge out there it’s unbelievable. He gets it up and down as well as anybody.”

Receiving a short-game compliment from Mickelson would be akin to having Leonardo DiCaprio call you a great actor.

“I took three weeks off and all we did was work on my short game,” said Woodland, whose swing coach is Dallas-based Randy Smith. “Phil complimented me on my short game last week and I called my coach and we were both jumping off the walls. I’ve heard from other people that he’s talked about my ability and what he likes about my game. That’s humbling for me because he’s obviously one of the best players in the world.”

Woodland on Woods, who ranks one spot behind him on the alphabetical list of touring pros and 61 spots behind him on the 2011 money list: “I played with Tiger two days at Bay Hill. We had a good time, too. That’s a guy you definitely learn from. He’s not where he wants to be right now, obviously, but we both hit it bad that week, he shoots three-under, I shoot eight-over. The learning aspect for me was that he knows how to miss it in certain spots.”

Woods withdrew from last week’s The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla., after firing a 42 on the front nine, driven out of the tournament by a sore knee.

“It’s pretty impressive watching him play,” Woodland said. “I don’t think he’s too far away. I think once he gets healthy, he’ll be right back where he was.”

All touring pros and their caddies make notes in a yardage book, starting with the practice round and continuing through the competition. Woodland, a native of Topeka, has the yardage books from all his rounds in a box in his home in Orlando.

“If a putt kind of surprised us, we’ll write it down,” said Woodland, who has Jon Yarbrough on his bag. “That way we have it when we go back and we’ll know what’s going on.”

The yardage book from his week at Augusta is just one reason he’s confident he’ll experience strong rounds at the Masters.

“I think the golf course suits me phenomenally,” Woodland said. “It’s one I can attack. A lot of courses, it’s tough to use your length. That course I can. It’s just a lot of local knowledge out there and we had the knowledge. We had all the notes. I was fortunate enough to play our practice round with Tom Watson. He gave me everything I needed to know. It’s just you have to trust it. A lot of times you’re thinking, ‘There’s no way the ball goes there,’ and it does. Going back next year, I’m excited to get back there and hopefully have a better chance to play well.”

To the shock of all the KU players, Woodland stopped by Grove’s annual postseason cookout Sunday night and hung out, answering all their questions about life on tour. Woodland’s success story is Grove’s best recruiting tool and Woodland knows how to market the program with his words as well. For one thing, Woodland said, the hitting bays at Alvamar that keep the players’ swings in shape during the winter, gives Kansas an advantage it didn’t used to have.

“We were hitting balls in the indoor football facility when I was here,” he said. “And to be able to come over here and play this course, and to be able to play Alvamar. With Kansas City being so close and Topeka having some good golf courses and they allow the Kansas team to come out. I think that’s huge. Some of these programs you’re kind of in the middle of nowhere and you’re kind of stuck. You don’t have anywhere to go. You have to stay at the same place all the time.”

The program won’t improve greatly overnight, but Woodland’s bullish on its chances for steady growth.

“You’ve got a great school and I don’t think there’s a better college town than this,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a great basketball school. It’s fun. It’s a great town. From that standpoint, I think it recruits itself, but obviously, we’ve got to put up the numbers to get the top kids in the country to realize what’s going on and realize they need to come here.”

The Kansas climate, not as ideally suited for golf as many schools, toughened Woodland for the brutal golf tests he has negotiated so well this spring.

“The wind’s always blowing,” he said. “I think that’s an advantage when you get out there. You know how to play in tough conditions. You know it’s not going to be easy out there. Obviously, Tom Watson has done well with it and we’re all trying to follow in his footsteps.”

The footsteps of two-time Kansas Amateur champion Woodland grow louder by the week, which will grow golf throughout the state, especially at KU.

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