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Original Issue

In the Driver's Seat

Gary Woodland has always been long, but credit a new mind-set and a revamped putting stroke for his breakthrough win at the Transitions

Gary Woodland dreamed big as a youngster growing up in Topeka, the modest, oh-so-Midwestern capital of Kansas. He dreamed of one day playing his sport on the world's biggest stage. You know how fairy tales go. Through years of hard work and dedication and yadda-yadda-yadda, he made that dream come true.

On Sunday, Woodland won the Transitions Championship, an underrated stop on the Florida swing of the PGA Tour. Not only did the 26-year-old secure a spot on the Tour for the next two years and earn $990,000, he also played his way into his first Masters. Augusta National is unquestionably golf's biggest stage—dogwoods, azaleas, green jackets, the ghost of Bobby Jones and Amen Corner.

But that wasn't Woodland's dream. He was a talented baseball player growing up. He was a shortstop, the position that most stud athletes play. When he was 16, he helped the Liberal Beejays get to the National Baseball Congress World Series in Georgia, where they won a national championship. One of his teammates and best friends was Joey Devine, who now pitches for the Oakland Athletics. "A little team from Kansas went down there and won," Woodland says. "That was awesome."

But playing big league baseball wasn't his dream, either. Woodland was also a high school basketball star. He won a pair of 5A state championships at Shawnee Heights High. The ultimate in this basketball-crazy state is to play for the Kansas Jayhawks. Woodland knew he wasn't good enough to do that, but that wasn't his dream, either. His dream was simply to play in Allen Fieldhouse, the storied arena on the KU campus. So it was that Woodland played guard for Washburn, an NCAA Division II program, when it faced No. 2 Kansas in 2002.

"It was probably the biggest thrill of my life," Woodland says. "Sixteen thousand fans breathing down on you in the place I'd been going to since I was a little kid. That was the biggest dream I ever had, and I accomplished that."

The dream was sweet but not precisely as envisioned. Woodland played 20 minutes and hit one three-point shot. He knows his statistics. No need to ask. "I was 1 for 7 from the field," he says, shaking his head and grinning. Kansas won by 35.

After that game Woodland knew it was time for a new dream. Or maybe a new plan. "I realized that I wasn't going to play in the NBA," he says. "I wanted to play at the highest level; it didn't matter what sport."

Kansas was the only school that recruited Woodland as a golfer, and when he opted for basketball at Washburn, KU golf coach Ross Randall predicted that he'd change his mind after a year and told Woodland that he had a future in golf. Woodland transferred to Kansas in 2003 and got serious about golf.

You know how these fairy tales go. Through years of hard work and dedication and yadda-yadda-yadda, Woodland made his dream come true. He won three college tournaments as a senior, was an honorable mention All-America, won the Kansas Amateur and left a trail of legendary feats behind thanks to a natural ability to boom his driver prodigious distances.

Fast-forward to 2011, past a couple of trips to Q school and a 2009 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder that sidelined him for nine months. Woodland is suddenly part of a new wave of players bidding to become stars, and it's not as if you couldn't see him coming. He lost a playoff to Jhonny Vegas at the Bob Hope Classic and finished fifth and sixth in two tournaments since then. After winning about $200,000 in his first two seasons on Tour, he has banked $1,850,064 in 2011.

Noted Dallas-area coach Randy Smith has worked with Woodland for nearly six years. Woodland's biggest improvements of late came in the short game and course management. He sought help from Brad Faxon, one of the better putters on Tour over the last two decades. Faxon observed that Woodland's stroke was a bit slow, which made it easier for the putter to get off-line. They worked on quickening the pace, Woodland says, and he had a sensational week on the greens at Innisbrook.

He holed a 16-foot downhill slider for a birdie at the 17th hole to tie for the lead and an uphill 10-footer for par on the final green for what turned out to be the winner when Webb Simpson, playing in the group behind, bogeyed the last. Remarkably, Woodland on Sunday holed all 17 of his putts inside 20 feet.

Woodland also has adopted a more conservative style of golf. "I'm learning that you can't fire at every pin and hit driver every hole," he says. "I did that in '09, and it didn't work very well."

He used his driver only four or five times a round at Innisbrook, and at the 446-yard, uphill par-4 18th on Sunday, he switched from a three-wood to a two-iron and launched it 284 yards, leaving himself a pitching wedge in.

"He's no surprise," says Nick Watney, who won a week earlier at Doral and was 13th at the Transitions. "He can shift it." That's golfspeak for, "He hits it long."

As a result of his victory, Woodland can set his schedule. In addition to the Masters, he'll play this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which is in Orlando, where he lives at Lake Nona. Then there's the Shell Houston Open the week before the Masters. He'll probably play that one too. "Houston is a great course [Redstone Golf Club] for me," he says.

It will be a big weekend for sports in Houston, as the Final Four will also be in town. "If Kansas is there, I'll definitely be there," Woodland says.

And if Kansas were to win it all? Well, that's a different dream entirely.

"He can shift it," Watney says of Woodland. That's golfspeak for, "He hits it long."


Photograph by DAVID WALBERG

THINKING MAN Knowing a par at the last would be big, Woodland dialed down with a two-iron, which he promptly striped 284 yards.