AUGUSTA, Ga. — Though the bulk of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season lies ahead of him, Gary Woodland has already had his defining moment.
And no, it’s not the one most would expect it to be.
The natural response is Woodland’s victory in early February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Not only did the playoff win over Chez Reavie end a drought of nearly five winless years on the Tour, his last win coming at the 2013 Reno-Tahoe Open, but also laid to rest the personal tribulations Woodland dealt with in 2017.
It was a cathartic moment for sure, with Woodland pointing to the sky to honor the unborn twin he and his wife, Gabby, lost seven months earlier.
But for a defining moment? Look to the QBE Shootout in mid-December. That’s where Woodland set the stage for what he hopes becomes the best season of his career.
“From a mental standpoint it was a new year,” Woodland said. “From everything we dealt with last year, it was time for a new year. It was time for some changes, whatever it was.”
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Woodland has been a master of change throughout his professional career. He’s employed a handful of caddies and a touch more swing coaches.
Those areas have been settled for more than a year now with Woodland turning to Brennan Little to handle his bag and returning to Butch Harmon to handle his swing.
But in Woodland’s mind something was still missing. Something to complete the transformation from great ball-striker to great player.
“I called Butch toward the end of last year and told him, ‘I’m tired of being where I am,’” Woodland said. “I’d been 40th to 60th in the world (rankings) in the last four years and haven’t really veered too much from that spot. It was time to make that move.”
The move Woodland craved was to shore up the two areas of his game that have long been considered his weakness — his short game and his putting. The numbers bear out as much.
While Woodland ranked seventh on the PGA Tour in ball-striking in 2017 and 34th in all-around statistics, he was 114th in scrambling, 104th in birdie conversions and 177th in putting.
“I’ve been hitting the ball very well, especially toward the end of last year, and (the short game) is something that’s been holding me back,” Woodland said. “Statistics-wise, it’s one of my biggest weaknesses.
“I just hadn’t addressed it because it was one of those deals I was comfortable with where I was at and just was working on what I needed to do golf-swing wise. But it got to the point where I’m very comfortable with my golf swing. I can fix it on my own and don’t have to fly to Vegas every week to see Butch like I used to.”
Comfortable with his swing, the time was right for Woodland to start seriously addressing those shortcomings.
Enter Pete Cowen and Brad Faxon, the newest members of Woodland’s team.
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Cowen’s reputation as a short-game coach is second to none. Woodland has known the European guru who has worked with the likes of Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell and other European stars for some time, but never sought his input for one reason or another.
But after consulting with Harmon, he finally made the call.
“Butch just doesn’t have the time,” Woodland said. “When I’m out there, we’re focused on other things. He said, ‘Hey, I have no problem with you getting a second look and Pete’s the best in the world. If he has the time to do it, call him.’ I’ve known Pete for a long time and he was very open and willing to do it.”
In Woodland, Cowen saw an immense talent. But at the same time he also saw that a lot of elements that make Woodland a great ball-striker also were wreaking havoc in his short game.
“His power does affect his short game because he gets a lot of ‘flash’ speed to create that power,” Cowen said in a column earlier this year for Worldwide Golf. “But that needs to be controlled in the short game. It’s all about getting him to understand the mechanics and the difference between speed and pressure.”
Starting the week of the CBE Shootout, the two began working on a complete overhaul to Woodland’s short game. Everything was addressed, from basic mechanics to grip to club path to release point.
“You look at some of the greats and they try to mimic their short game to their full swing,” Woodland said. “What Pete helped me understand is what makes me a good ball-striker and gives me so much distance hinders me in my short game. What he believed and what I understand now is I’m going to have to have two different swings. I’m going to have to have a swing for my short game and then one for my full game. It’s going to take more work, but it’s something I can do and I was comfortable with that.”
Both expected the process to be a long and tedious one. And to get it completely where Woodland is as comfortable with the changes as he now is with his full golf swing, it will be.
But the changes also reached a certain comfort level pretty quickly. Starting at the CBE Shootout.
“It’s a tournament where I’m under the gun, but it’s not a major tournament,” Woodland said. “I could put the stuff we were working on under the gun and test it out and I had a partner there to bail me out and not have to worry about messing up.”
That week, Woodland teamed with Daniel Berger to finish tied for fourth at 21 under par. If those results weren’t enough to convince Woodland he was on the right path, his start to the 2018 PGA Tour season were.
Woodland posted top-12 finishes in his first three starts of the year, the last of those his victory in Phoenix. And he has no doubt the strides made in the short game were a major factor.
“I’ve hit it in spots this year where last year — me and my caddie laughed about it — I wouldn’t have been able to hit the shots I’m hitting now,” Woodland said. “When Butch says he’s the best, you take that and trust it. You know you have to make changes to get better, so it’s one of those deals where it wasn’t something I was going to try. It was something I was all in on. I saw the results right away, which helps.
“I started to realize what I needed to do and how I needed to work. Playing well early helped — playing well at the Sony and in San Diego and then winning right away. I saw the results I needed and that’s why I went to Pete to get to where I’m trending to right now.”
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Woodland and Faxon have a long history, having worked together on and off with his putting stroke for a number of years, including his breakthrough season in 2011.
Most of that time, however, was simply spent in a friendly, colleague relationship. During Woodland’s early years on tour, Faxon himself was still mainly focused on his own playing career.
Since joining the Champions Tour, however, Faxon has spent more and more time in the coaching realm. And when Woodland sought him out to become a paying customer instead of playing colleague, it was another match that fit perfectly.
“We’ve both matured,” Woodland said. “When I worked with him initially, he was still playing. Now, he wants to be a teacher and be a putting coach. He’s more into it than he was prior because before he was still playing. Now it’s more of a coach-player relationship and that’s what’s really helped us.”
Unlike his short-game work, there was no overhaul of Woodland’s putting stroke. The short game changes were mechanical. The putting changes are mental.
“It’s preparation and practice more than anything,” Woodland said. “There’s a million different ways to do it and everybody I’ve gone to tells me my stroke’s great. I had to get over the fact I didn’t need to make a change with the putting stroke, I just had to learn how to practice and get more in depth with my routine and not worry about results, which is hard to do when you’re in the middle of competition and not making putts.
“He’s given me some little keys to help me do that and help me get over the confidence issue with the putting.”
Woodland has seen only a slight improvement in his putting statistics in 2018, moving from 177th to 169th in putting. But his birdie conversion numbers have drastically improved from 104th to 79th, and he attributes a bulk of that to his renewed confidence in both his putting and short game.
“When I talked to Pete when I initially started working with him, his goal was for me to win golf tournaments when I’m not putting it my best,” Woodland said. “He wants me to rely on my ball-striking, rely on my chipping and short game to win. And when I do putt it well, then I can pull away from the field. Obviously I putted it pretty solid in Phoenix and when I do that, I’m going to give myself a chance to win. I don’t feel like I have to put as much pressure on my putting now because I feel like I’m a more complete player. That’s a good deal.”
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Heading into his sixth Masters appearance on Thursday, Woodland is riding a wave of confidence, even if his results since his victory in Phoenix wouldn’t suggest as much.
Since posting his third tour win, Woodland has missed the cut in two of three events and his best showing was a tie for 49th at the Honda Classic. In the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, he didn’t make it out of his pool, finishing with a 1-1-1 record.
In the past, that kind of spell might spell trouble for Woodland, eliciting doubts in his mind.
Instead, it’s been quite the opposite.
“It was exciting from the standpoint I overworked the short game to a point where it kind of leaked into my full game and I kind of got in trouble,” Woodland said. “I played for three weeks in a row and really just kind of got lost with my full swing and it was my short game that was bailing me out. Saw Butch before Match Play and he kind of laughed and said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Woodland spent time with Harmon to get his swing back on track. In the week leading up to the Masters, he worked with Faxon. And Woodland spent most of Tuesday at Augusta National Golf Club fine-tuning the short game with Cowen.
The pieces are in place, Woodland believes, to make a run at his first green jacket.
“I think I’m playing better and I’m more complete,” said Woodland, whose best showing at the Masters came during his breakthrough season in 2011 when he tied for 24th in his Masters debut. “The confidence I had (in 2011) was very comparable, but the game was nowhere near where I’m at right now. The shots I’m capable of hitting, the short-game shots I know I can hit that can bail me out — all those pieces make me more comfortable and complete than I’ve ever been.
“In 2011, I just knew I was playing well. Now I know I’m a better player and I’m playing well. I don’t have any question marks. Anything that goes wrong, I know I can get fixed and on top of that I know what I need to do to be successful. Before, my game wasn’t as sharp. You can fake confidence all you want, but if your game isn’t sharp, you have no chance. I know what I need to work on and, from a confidence level, I know I have the results. And you can’t ask for more than that going in.”