LAHAINA, HAWAII | When the tournament Gary Woodland had led for so long finally was complete and Xander Schauffele was being congratulated for winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions on the wings of his closing 62 on Sunday, Woodland put aside his disappointment for a moment.
Woodland, who played college basketball and has a linebacker’s build, saw Schauffele in the scoring area and quickly stepped toward him, giving the winner a playful shove on the shoulders before congratulating him.
“He knows he could kick my ass if he wanted to,” Schauffele said later.
It was a week that provided yet another lesson in how difficult it is to win on the PGA Tour. And Woodland became the face of that lesson. He shot 67-67-68-68 on the Plantation Course at Kapalua to finish at 22-under par. No one played the par-5s better than he did.
As good as it was, it wasn’t good enough.
“The competitor in me knew I needed to do one better and, unfortunately, I didn’t get it done,” Woodland said.
It’s been a decade since Woodland joined the PGA Tour and it’s been a lucrative career in terms of money and lifestyle, thanks to more than $22 million in on-course earnings.
When Schauffele birdied the 72nd hole to win on Sunday, it was his fourth victory in a Tour career less than three years old. That’s one more victory than Woodland, who first played the Tour in 2009.
Woodland, a 34-year-old Kansas native, is a familiar name on leaderboards and he’s a familiar presence on the golf course but the sense is that he’s not yet the complete golf package.
That may be changing.
Though he didn’t win at Kapalua, Woodland played well enough give himself the chance. It took Schauffele shooting 62 on Sunday to beat him and while the sting will linger for a time, Woodland has reasons to be optimistic.
He signed a new equipment deal with Wilson the day before the Tournament of Champions began and he talks about his new equipment like he has new toys. He’s not as enthusiastic about the University of Kansas Jayhawks’ basketball team but he’s hopeful they will find their form before March arrives.
Woodland brought his entire family to Hawaii as his Christmas gift to them, which felt like a gift to him. Last Friday evening, the family received word that Woodland’s grandmother had passed away.
“You try to prepare for that but you never really can,” Woodland said.
For good reason, Woodland always has been considered a bomber, one of the guys who can fly the horizon with his tee shots but never has been able to bring it all together. There’s a difference between hitting shots and playing golf and, at times, that has seemed to be Woodland’s biggest challenge.
Simplifying the equation, Woodland never has been a particularly good putter. He ranked third on Tour in strokes gained off the tee last year, but he was 177th in strokes gained around the green and 114th in strokes gained putting. Two seasons ago, Woodland was 167th in strokes gained putting and he was 128th three seasons ago.
He’s been working at it for months now and he left Maui ranked 50th in strokes gained putting. That doesn’t make him a wizard on the short grass but it’s an improvement.
More than putting, Woodland can feel himself learning to play rather than just hit shots. He didn’t flinch when he was paired with Tiger Woods in the final round of the PGA Championship last summer in St. Louis. He felt comfortable last week on the Plantation Course at Kapalua and took a measure of pride in relying on more than his power.
“I’m trusting my game a lot more,” Woodland said.
He pointed to two examples from his final round in Maui – an up-and-down birdie at the par-5 ninth and a par at the drivable par-4 14th, where he opted to lay up with an iron off the tee – as examples of the new Woodland.
“Little things like that where I played a little more conservatively, trusting the rest of my game,” he said. “I kept fighting and that’s something I take away from playing Sunday (at the PGA) with Tiger. … I’m a completely different player than I have been in the past.”
Gary Woodland and Rory McIlroy Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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