U.S. Open: Two impossible shots that won it for Gary Woodland

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland once took a knee to the trachea playing basketball and returned to the court three days later. You think he’s going to be scared by a little golf shot?

Woodland, who won the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Sunday by three shots, faced two different career-making shots on Sunday, and pulled off both with such mastery you wonder why the guy’s only on his first major victory.

Start at the 14th hole, the most wicked par 5 in all of golf. Woodland, who’d began the day with the lead, was watching it crumble. Up ahead, Brooks Koepka, destroyer of worlds, was carving up the course in search of his third straight U.S. Open win. Next to Woodland stood Justin Rose, who had won a U.S. Open when virtually the entire gallery was rooting for Phil Mickelson.

And here was Woodland, journeyman golfer, pro since 2007 but a winner only three times since then, a guy who’d vaulted from obscurity to the Friday and Saturday night leads. All other things being equal, Woodland would be the third of the three horses you’d pick to bring home this trophy.

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The 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach
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The 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach
Rickie Fowler hits out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. Fowler finished the round at 5-under par, 66.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Gary Woodland hits out of the bunker on the ninth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Justin Rose, of England, reacts to his bunker shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt York)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13: Tiger Woods of the United States reacts to his second shot on the par 4, ninth hole during the first round of the 2019 U.S.Open at the Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 13, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13: Phil Mickelson of the United States plays a shot from the tenth tee during the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 13, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13: Dustin Johnson of the United States reacts to a putt on the 13th green during the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 13, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13: Jordan Spieth of the United States plays a second shot on the ninth hole during the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 13, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Gary Woodland watches his tee shot on the first hole during the final round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Sunday, June 16, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Brooks Koepka reacts after missing a birdie putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Sunday, June 16, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Tiger Woods walks to the ninth green during the third round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament, Saturday, June 15, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 15: Tiger Woods of the United States plays a shot from the third tee during the third round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 15, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 16: Tiger Woods of the United States plays a second shot on the ninth hole during the final round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 16, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 14: Gary Woodland of the United States celebrates on the ninth green during the second round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 14, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
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He stood in the fairway at 14, 255 yards out from the pin, looking up at a green so high it might as well have been atop a building. He and his caddie Brennan Little sized up the situation: lay up and play for the par, or go big and go strong.

Woodland speculated that laying up might be a smarter play. But Little was emphatic.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” he said. “Let’s hit 3-wood.”

The stakes: the U.S. Open lead. Ahead, Koepka was on the 15th green, 39 feet from the hole and putting for a birdie that would have given him a share of the lead. A bad shot here from Woodland — a shot into the bunker, a shot over the pool table-sized green, a shot wide left or right — and he wouldn’t just be sharing the lead with Koepka, he’d be handing it over.

Woodland has a routine he goes through every time he hits a shot, a technique he picked up from his days as a basketball player: count one, two, three, slowly, and then pull the trigger. It once helped him nail 14 of 15 free throws in a state title game. And now it was about to help him win the U.S. Open.

One. Two. Three. Swing.

The ball tracked straight at the pin, arcing down, down, down … and landed just over the bunker, bouncing and kicking to the right fringe of the green. From there, Woodland would sink a birdie to put two shots’ distance between himself and Koepka — and the defending champion wouldn’t get any closer.

"To execute that shot under the pressure, under the situation, that shot gave me the confidence,” Woodland said. “I felt better after hitting that shot on the golf course today than I had in a long, long time.”

He would need that confidence three holes later, standing on the green at 17. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in golf, the sweep of Stillwater Cove and the fog-shrouded mountains all around, the sound of waves crashing on rocks just beyond the green a constant presence. But at that exact moment, Woodland was again facing a shot that would define his U.S. Open.

He’d tossed his club in frustration after swinging off the tee at 17. The ball reached the green, yes, but it was a good 90 feet and one huge rise from the cup. Ahead on the 18th, Koepka was on the green. Woodland had no idea how Koepka was playing. Was he shooting for a birdie that would remove all margin of error from Woodland’s two-shot lead? Was he shooting for an eagle that would erase it?

Woodland didn’t have a choice. He had to play smart, if not overly aggressive. He had to chip on the green — a move that will get you thrown off your golf course, but a move that Woodland had to attempt to keep his hopes alive.

“If I putted it, I don’t think I could have got within 20 feet,” he said. “I was just trying to … get it past the hole so I could be putting back uphill, and it came off perfectly.”

That’s putting it mildly. The 90-foot shot ended up 28 inches from the hole. A par putt later, a birdie miss from Koepka, and all that was left was a long, triumphant walk up the 18th green at Pebble Beach.

Two shots. Two little miracles. One hell of a tournament.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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