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It was a win that channeled the best of Pebble Beach’s past U.S. Open champions.
What would be today’s equivalent of the 1-iron that Jack Nicklaus stiffed at the 1972 U.S. Open? How about Gary Woodland ripping a 3-wood from 263 yards to 16 feet at the volcano-shaped 14th hole, notoriously known as the toughest par-5 in Major championship golf?
Need an iconic chip at the 17th hole? How about an even more difficult pitch than the one Tom Watson faced in 1982, from the other side of the 17th green? Woodland pinched the perfect pitch from 90 feet to within inches of the hole, preserving a two-shot lead that Brooks Koepka seemed prime to bite into as he sent his second shot at the 18th hole skipping by the flag.
Looking for a record-setting performance? Only needing a stress-free three-putt to clinch his first Major, Woodland walked in a 30-footer for birdie at the 18th to reach 13-under, breaking the previous scoring record set by Tiger Woods during his merciless 15-shot win in 2000. Woodland’s second-round 6-under 65 also tied the U.S. Open course record Woods set during that dominant week.
Woodland joined the pantheon of Pebble Beach champions – Nicklaus, Watson, Woods, Tom Kite and Graeme McDowell – by vanquishing golf’s terminator. Koepka came into the week a Major machine, a winner of four of his last eight Majors, including the past two U.S. Opens. Koepka started the final round four back of Woodland in a tie for third place before entering Major mode, rattling off four birdies in his first five holes.
“Brooks is unbelievable,” conceded Woodland, who picked up his fourth career win on the PGA TOUR. “He lives for this moment. And obviously what he’s done the last couple of years is phenomenal.”
But Woodland never wavered as he pulled off shots that summoned nostalgic memories of Pebble Beach’s greatest U.S. Open moments. It was like he was beating levels of a video game, advancing through his final round after conquering iconic moments of Pebble Beach past.
After finding himself over the seventh green in a tiny pot bunker, just to the right of the spot Kite chipped in during the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open, Woodland scared the hole with his blast before pouring in a 7-footer for a clutch sandy par.
Bogeys on Nos. 9 and 12 dropped Woodland to even-par on the day and within one of Koepka as he reached the 14th hole, a par-5 infamous for slaying title chances. But Woodland smashed the shot of his life, carrying the gaping bunker in front of the green and somehow stopping his ball just past hole-high – no easy feat with a lob wedge, let alone a 3-wood.
“To execute that shot under pressure, in that situation, it gave me the confidence I needed,” Woodland reflected. “I felt better after hitting that shot than I had in a long, long time.”
Woodland needed one more magical shot to secure his first Major, but instead he delivered two. Studying his options some 90 feet right of the hole at No. 17, with rough and a raised hog’s back directly in his line, Woodland went for a gutsy chip — from the edge of the green. He nipped the nervy pitch perfectly, and watched as it checked up inches from the hole.
“If I putted it, I don’t think I could have got within 20 feet,” Woodland admitted.
A bogey there, coupled with a seemingly inevitable Koepka birdie at No. 18, would have tied the championship.
“All day, Brooks was knocking on the door,” said Woodland, who was playing one group behind Koepka. “I was proud of myself for staying in my moment and controlling myself and not get too worried about what he was doing.”
As Woodland salvaged his par, Koepka’s second shot at No. 18 bounded through the green. Woodland then watched from the 18th tee as Koepka’s 9-foot birdie try peeled off to the Pacific.
“I played great,” said a gracious Koepka, who has finished first or second in each of his last four Majors. “I hit every shot that I wanted to. And sometimes no matter how good your good is, it isn’t there. Nothing I could do. Gary played a great four days.”
Sitting at 12-under and two clear of Koepka, Woodland safely found the 18th green in three, setting up three putts from 30 feet to win the championship. Or one putt to beat Woods.
Woodland raised his putter 3 feet before his birdie disappeared, turning to the crowd with his hands raised as he soaked in the historic moment.
“For that putt to go in, it was amazing,” said Woodland, who was one of 31 players to finish under par. “I was a little excited. I know Tiger shot 12-under in 2000. To finish 13-under was pretty cool.”
What a way to join the exclusive fraternity of U.S. Open champions at Pebble Beach.