PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — “Drive for show, putt for dough.’’
This one of the most oft-used truisms in the sport of golf.
Gary Woodland, for the better part of his 10-plus years on the PGA Tour, has done a lot of driving for show as one of the brawniest, long-hitters in the game. But he hasn’t putted for enough dough and, more importantly, trophies.
Sunday, in the final round of the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, that all can change for Woodland. He’ll take a one-shot lead into the final round — the first 54-hole lead of his career in a major championship — with a chance to change the narrative of his career as a one-trick pony.
Woodland, who shot a 2-under 69 in Saturday’s third round, is 11-under and is trailed by 2013 U.S. open champion Justin Rose, who’s 10-under after shooting 68.
Brooks Koepka, who shot 68 Saturday and is seeking his third consecutive U.S. Open victory, is four shots back at 7-under and not out of it by any stretch. Louis Oosthuizen (70) and Chez Reavie (68) also are 7-under. Rory McIlroy, who shot 70 Saturday, lurks at 6-under.
But this is Woodland’s tournament to win. He’s played consistently better than anyone in the field and has had a few moments of destiny, too, with amazing par saves on Nos. 12 and 14.
“I felt real comfortable today,’’ Woodland said. “I’m comfortable with my game. I love the golf course; it fits my eye. I’m in a good spot. Now I’ve got to go out get ready in the morning and have some fun. I’m excited to be where I am right now.’’
Make no mistake: The 35-year-old Woodland has made a handsome living, having accumulated more than $23 million. But he’s won only three tournaments, which is not enough given his raw talent.
More specifically, he hasn’t won a major championship yet. In fact, he’s only recently begun to be competitive in majors after not having posted as much as a top-10 finish in the first 27 he played.
Last July, tired of coming up shorter than his talent says he should, Woodland made one of the most important decisions of his professional career when he brought putting coach/guru Phil Kenyon onto his team.
The results weren’t immediate, nor have they been completely consistent. Yes, Woodland entered this week having finished in the top-10 in two his previous three majors. But he, too, entered this week ranked 150th on the PGA Tour in putting this season.
Entering Saturday’s third round, though, he led the field in strokes-gained/putting at 7.16 — a massive improvement from his minus-0.211 number entering the U.S. Open.
“You feel like you’re out there searching,” Woodland said, referring to the state of his putting before he began working with Kenyon. “That’s a big deal for me now. I know we have my stroke where I want it. I’m not searching anymore. Now it’s more about learning the speed, learning the greens. I’m not focused on my stroke. And that’s a big deal with confidence.”
It was both symbolic and fitting that Woodland ended his second round late Friday — a 6-under 65 that got him to 9-under and gave him a two-shot lead over Rose — by making a 50-foot birdie putt on a ninth hole that had been giving a lot of other players in the field fits with its difficulty.
“This golf course I feel comfortable at,” Woodland said. “With the [putting]stroke itself, I put a lot of work in with Phil Kenyon. The PGA Championship [in May]was one of the worst weeks I’d had putting, but he told me it was the best he’s ever seen my stroke. We had a long talk the week after the PGA about learning how to practice, changing some things with the practice and routine, because the stroke itself was really good.
“That gave me a lot of confidence knowing that it was something I could work on, not stroke-wise, but learning how to practice, learning how to read greens, making some adjustments in that aspect. I’ve hit a lot of putts reading greens the last couple of weeks at home and this week before I got here. I got here on Saturday, a lot of work with Phil picking high lines and learning where I’m looking, that’s the big deal for me.
“We got very comfortable with it on Tuesday and it’s just progressed since then.’’