Gary Woodland isn’t shy when it comes to discussing how important swing coach Butch Harmon has been to him.
A quick examination of this year’s PGA Tour statistics reveals why. Under Harmon’s tutelage, Woodland ranks among the Tour’s best in no less than five key categories — the most notable of those being Strokes Gained: Total, where the former Shawnee Heights standout trails only world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
But for all the help Harmon has given Woodland, the instructor’s most significant recent tip had nothing to do with swing path, distance control, ball position or any other technical element. The best piece of advice Harmon offered was much more basic.
“Butch sent me a text Thursday morning before I played and said forget about everything else, let’s just put four rounds together,” Woodland said Sunday. “Don’t worry about what you shoot, don’t worry about winning, just put four good rounds together.”
With that simple directive, five years of struggle suddenly evaporated. Woodland opened last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open with rounds of 67, 68 and 67 before closing with a stellar 7-under 64 that featured nine birdies, including three straight from Nos. 15 through 17. He went on to beat Chez Reavie with a par on the first playoff hole to complete his third Tour victory.
“It’s nice to be back in here seeing all you guys again,” Woodland said at the outset of his news conference. “It’s been awhile. It’s been a long road. I’ve been close a lot and it’s just been frustrating. It’s been a frustrating five years, but I’ve battled through it.”
For all that Woodland has accomplished during a pro career spanning roughly a decade, the 33-year-old clearly believes he could have — maybe even should have — achieved more.
That, in and of itself, says something. In addition to winning three Tour events, Woodland has finished second eight times and placed among the top 10 29 times. He’s earned more than $18.6 million and been ranked as high as 24th in the world.
Still, Woodland knows he missed some opportunities. Whether beset by inexperience, inconsistency, injury or personal tragedy, he insists there have been numerous times when he has under-performed, failing to capitalize on the talent that makes him one of the Tour’s longest hitters and top ball-strikers.
“There’s no doubt about that,” Woodland said.
Woodland qualified for the Tour in 2009 but underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in August of that year, forcing him to miss much of the 2010 season. He regained his Tour card at Q School in December 2010, but despite two successful trips through the former qualifying process, he admitted his game wasn’t groomed to compete against the world’s best.
“I was just athletic,” he said. “And I won right away in 2011, so expectations got high. And I didn’t play great, got hurt again in 2012 and battled injuries for a while.”
Woodland also battled the weight of those lofty expectations — expectations he established when he won the Transitions Championship in March 2011.
“When you win early, you want that feeling,” he said. “I mean, I want this week-in, week-out.
“I put myself in a lot of positions to win. I have a lot of second-place finishes the last four or five years. I just haven’t done it, and that adds up, that adds a lot of pressure. I have a lot of people around me, which is a good thing, but everybody expects you to play well and when you don’t have the results, that’s tough.”
Woodland settled into the runner-up position seven times from the time he won his second Tour event, the 2013 Reno-Tahoe Open, until Sunday when he rallied from a three-shot deficit. His spate of second-place performances included a loss to former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy in the title match of the 2015 WGC Match Play.
Two weeks after challenging McIlroy for the Match Play crown, Woodland tied for fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship. Suddenly the Topeka native was up to No. 24 in the world.
Still, the ultimate goal of winning remained elusive, largely because he routinely was undone by one poor round.
Woodland’s performance just eight days ago proved a microcosm of his troubles in recent years. He entered the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in contention, but slipped to a tie for 12th with a 3-over 75 that saw him bogey four of his first five holes.
“I just haven’t played a tournament in five years where I put four rounds together,” he said.
The end of Woodland’s victory drought followed an offseason spent working not only with Harmon but also with Pete Cowen and Brad Faxon. Cowen consulted Woodland on his short game while Faxon offered putting advice that Woodland said was more mental than mechanical.
The results have been startling through the first few months of the 2017-18 wraparound season. In addition to trailing only Johnson in the Strokes Gained: Total category, Woodland ranks eighth on Tour in Strokes Gained: Putting (1.090), 10th in scoring average (69.732), 10th in driving distance (313.9 yards), 11th in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (1.616) and 18th in greens in regulation percentage (74.01 percent).
Woodland’s improvements with the flat stick have been most striking. In the previous five years he never ranked higher than 85th in Strokes Gained: Putting.
“Strokes Gained’s been really good this year, but I feel like I can make a lot of putts and I haven’t felt that way in a long time,” Woodland said. “And obviously with the way I hit it, and now I’m confident with the short game and the putter, good things will happen.”
They already have. With Sunday’s win, Woodland jumped 27 spots to No. 26 in the world, the second-highest ranking of his career. He also jumped 33 spots to No. 5 in the FedEx Cup standings and now sits No. 7 on the United States’ Ryder Cup points list.
In other words, if qualifying ended today, Woodland would be guaranteed one of eight automatic U.S. spots for this year’s Ryder Cup matches, which will be played Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National outside of Paris.
But Woodland isn’t concerned with that at this early juncture of the season. For now, his sole focus remains on doing what helped him end nearly five years of frustration.
That means continuing the work he and Harmon have done and continuing to string together four solid rounds, beginning again Thursday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
″(This) really just verifies what we have been doing,” Woodland said of the win. “Butch and I put a lot of work in. We have gotten some outside help with some other areas of our game, but Butch and I battled through this really for five years and this just verifies that we’re doing the right things and we’re hoping to build something special.”