Gary Woodland: How a Special Olympics golfer inspired new US Open champion

TOPEKA, Kan. — He dreamed of starring in the NBA, but in Gary Woodland’s first college game on a basketball scholarship, he realized he needed a plan B.

Woodland acted quickly and switched universities to play golf, turned pro in 2007, and 12 years later held off world No. 1 Brooks Koepka to clinch his maiden major title with victory in the US Open at Pebble Beach.

The 35-year-old from Topeka, Kansas fulfilled the promise that has been bubbling for years, developing a short game and putting stroke to match his prodigious driving distances.

The competitive fire was inbuilt from his basketball days, but he needed every ember to hold off Koepka, who was bidding to win a fifth major in nine starts and become only the second player to win three US Opens in a row after Scot Willie Anderson in 1905.

“I always believed I would be a professional athlete and be successful,” Woodland told CNN World Sport’s Patrick Snell after his three-shot victory on the Monterey Peninsula. “I didn’t know what sport that would be in.”

‘This ain’t gonna work’

Woodland’s wake-up call came when his Washburn University basketball side took on the top-ranked University of Kansas.

“I was guarding Kirk Hinrich (2003 Chicago Bulls draft pick), and, was like, ‘OK, I need to find something else, because this ain’t gonna work,'” he told reporters in California.

“And that was my first game in college. I was a two-time State champion, All-State, blah, blah, blah, but that was a different level.”

Golf had always been in the background, and after his freshman year he took up a scholarship in the sport at the University of Kansas. Now he was on the right track, and after a successful college career he joined the PGA Tour in 2009, winning the first of four titles in 2011.

‘I got this’

Woodland’s previous best major finishes were tied sixth at the PGA Championship last year, after leading at halfway, and tied eighth in the US PGA at Bethpage in May 2019.

But his name went viral on social media earlier this season after he formed a friendship with Special Olympics golfer Amy Bockerstette, who has Downs Syndrome.

In a video organized by the PGA Tour, Bockerstette joined Woodland and Matt Kuchar to play a practice hole — the infamous par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale during the Pheonix Open.

In front of packed stands, Bockerstette hit her tee shot into the bunker but she told Woodland, “I got this.”

She splashed out to 12 feet and said again of the putt, “I got this.” Bockerstette made her putt for par and a beaming Woodland gave her a hug.

Woodland leaned into Bockerstette’s can-do attitude at Pebble Beach.

“The world needs a lot more of Amy in it,” Woodland told CNN. “I mean, her energy. Her love, for not only life but for the game and people around her, that’s what we need in this world.

“And her positive attitude or positive energy I relied on a lot.”

‘Miracle child’

Woodland and his wife Gabby needed to draw on every ounce of positive energy in March 2017. One of the twins Gabby was carrying died in her womb, before she gave birth to a son, Jaxson, three months later.

“It was tough, I mean a lot of tears went into that,” said Woodland. “A lot of self-reflecting, a lot of reflecting with my wife, you know holding a still-born, seeing my wife struggle through that, you know her on bedrest for 13 weeks, my son in the hospital for weeks after weeks, four surgeries after he was born.

“That puts this into perspective real quick. There’s a lot more to life than winning golf tournaments. I know even if I would have shot 80 and lost this tournament by 10 shots, I’m still going to go home to a miracle child who I have the responsibility of making sure that he has a great life and that’s what I’m excited about.”

Woodland’s win at Pebble Open earned him $2.25 million and moved him up to career-high 12th in the world, but he insists it was a victory for the power of teamwork.

“You can’t do it on your own,” he said. “You know, fortunately my wife and I happen to have a great relationship but we have people around us that can help us get through moments.

“And I relied on a lot of people through that time, I relied on a lot of people today, through my coaches, and my trainers and my agent, my caddie, this was a group win for everybody.”

And coming on Fathers’ Day, Woodland’s US Open success prompted him to recall the input his dad had in his sporting career.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without my dad,” he said. “My dad worked nights growing up. Growing up I had somebody to shoot baskets with, whatever we did I had somebody to do that with.

“My dad never forced me to do anything. But if I did it, if I decided to go play catch or basketball, he was hard on me. You had to do it the right way, if you were going to do it.

“I remember the first time I beat him in golf I was 13. I don’t know if I beat him in basketball until I was 14 or 15. He was bigger than me and never let me win.”

The Woodlands are expecting twin girls soon, and his journey, his friendship with Bockerstette and the achievement of his major dream has given him the perfect material for parental advice later in life.

“You know, I’m going to tell them that anything is possible,” he said.

“That as long as you can go in with belief and a positive attitude which is contagious around for everybody. Believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams. And work hard and anything can happen.”

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