Even at the highest level, golfers relentlessly tinker, seeking the secret to making that final step from good tour player to great one.
They are NASCAR mechanics, forever under the hood looking to add a little juice here, even better balance there.
Gary Woodland, the most accomplished male golfer in the history of Kansas University, didn’t let enormity of the stage — the 114th U.S. Open at relentlessly difficult Pinehurst No. 2 — put his quest on hold.
During a Wednesday practice round, former golf great Greg Norman, with whom Woodland started working this season, advised him to try something new with his setup.
“I was getting a little too left-sided with my weight, and we moved it back to my right side in a more athletic position,” Woodland said. “When I get comfortable, I get good. Unfortunately, I wasn’t comfortable the whole time, and that’s tough out here at the U.S. Open.”
So why not wait until after playing a tournament noted for golf courses set up with the idea of making birdies so difficult to attain, bogeys so easy?
Because he hadn’t been comfortable recently anyway.
“I was uncomfortable all week. I didn’t play well at Memorial,” Woodland said. “I went home, didn’t feel well last week at home, and I didn’t really hit it well Monday or Tuesday when I was here. I played great on Wednesday in the practice round, so I was excited about it. I just have to get comfortable with it. I’m kind of hit or miss right now.”
For all four rounds of the U.S. Open, Woodland was hit or miss.
His scores all were different — 72-71-75-74 for 12-over and a tied-for-52nd finish — but accomplished in similar fashion.
“It was pretty much the same all week,” Woodland said. “I played one good nine, one bad nine.”
The good one came first the first two days and the bad one was hitting leadoff the final two days.
One day after carding a 40 on the front nine, Woodland got through the first nine holes in 39 strokes. He shot 35 on consecutive days on the back nine.
As strange as that was, it didn’t merit mention compared to the eerily similar way Woodland played the second hole on the final two days of the tournament.
He yanked his tee shot left to almost the identical spot on both days, which is to say the worst possible spot without leaving the boundaries of the golf course. Again, he was right next to a fence with trees in the way, and his best shot was to hit it backward, cheating himself of not only a stroke but of about 40 yards from where he would have been had he hammered a drive down the middle. He scored a double-bogey 6 on the hole Saturday, a 5 on Sunday, thanks to dropping a 19-foot putt.
“I just don’t hit the ball left,” Woodland said. “I wasn’t comfortable with that tee shot, and to hit it over there ... it was just one of those deals. I haven’t seen the ball go like that in a long time, and to do it back-to-back days was surprising. To hit it backward both days, I don’t know the last time I hit one backward, so to do it two days in a row was unbelievable.”
Somewhere in the mystery land of subconsciousness, the previous day’s shot must have played out in his head.
“I hit 3-wood through the practice rounds and the first day,” Woodland said. “I missed the 3-wood on Thursday, and we decided to hit driver. I was trying to cut it, and I hit it off the toe both days and over toward the fence.”
Woodland dug himself a hole by bogeying the first three holes and left too many putts inches from the cup to climb out. If he didn’t lead the field in empathetic groans spilling onto the green from the grandstands, he had to be at least on the leaderboard for them.
“It was just tough,” he said. “There were a lot of these holes where there were double-breakers. You could be five feet, and it feels like the ball is going both directions. The speed wasn’t that bad. The speed was pretty easy for us, but the pin locations were pretty tough.”
Woodland birdied the par-3 17th for the second time in the tournament, dropping a dart three feet from the cup this time.
His only other birdie Sunday will stay with him and his father, Dan, much longer, and there was nothing spectacular about the golf aspect of it. He reached the par-5 No. 5 in two and left himself a tap-in birdie. What made it memorable was that after Woodland had scaled a big hill to the elevated green, he jogged back down the hill and reached into the gallery to hug his father and shake his hand.
“I was looking for him all day,” Woodland said. “I didn’t want to text him. I wanted to see him in person to tell him, ‘Happy Father’s Day.’ I didn’t get to see him before I teed off. The fifth hole I saw him over there, and I just wanted to run over there and tell him, ‘Happy Father’s Day.’ Running back down the hill wasn’t that bad. Running back up the hill I was a little out of breath.”
He wasn’t the only one. His father, who hadn’t moved a step, was a little out of breath himself from the moment.
The closest Woodland came to contending was when he shot a 32 on the front nine Friday, putting him in a tie for seventh place at 1-under for the tourney, but his 39 on the back side sent him, well, backward.
His takeway from his fifth U.S. Open?
“I’m split right now,” Woodland said. “I’m very frustrated where I finished, but I’m also very excited about the way things are going. I feel like I’m getting better. There were some shots that I hit this week that I haven’t hit in a long time, bunker shots I haven’t seen in a long time. If I can get the driver down and get some putts to go in, we’ll be right where we want to be.”
And then right back under the hood looking for the next edge.