Record-setting Woodland eyes major breakthrough at US Open

Pebble Beach (United States) (AFP) –


Gary Woodland, who couldn't muster a top-10 finish in his first 27 major championship appearances, takes a two-stroke lead into the weekend at Pebble Beach eyeing a US Open title that once seemed all but impossible.

The 35-year-old American, ranked 25th in the world, is a three-time winner on the US PGA Tour, but no one's ever been tempted to tag him with the "best-player-never-to-win-a-major" label.

He admitted it once rankled to be known only for his booming drives, and says it's improvements in his short game and his putting that have seen him contend at the PGA Championship the past two years and, now, on an iconic US Open course.

"It's nice to be putting the results up so people can change the narrative a little bit," he said. It was 0-27 top-10s in majors. The narrative is going to be a long hitter. It's nice to come out well and change that."

Woodland had six birdies without a bogey in a 65 to match the best US Open round ever shot at Pebble Beach, achieved first by Tiger Woods in 2000 and matched by England's Justin Rose on Thursday.

Woodland's nine-under par total was one stroke better than Woods posted on the way to his crushing 15-shot triumph in 2000.

It's rare company to be in, but Woodland hasn't arrived at this point entirely without warning.

He held the 36-hole lead in the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive before settling for a tie for sixth.

He was tied for eighth at the PGA Championship last month at Bethpage Black.

- Monkey off his back -

"Short game has come around," he said. I've always been a pretty good ball-striker, I've relied on my ball-striking my whole career, athletic ability.

"But the short game and putting has kind of held me back. PGA last year I made a lot of putts, especially early in the week. Obviously it was nice to finish the top-10 and get that monkey off the back."

He said he learned a lot at Bellerive, especially how to contend when his ball-striking wasn't at its best.

"I have other things that can pick me up," he said. "That's been a big confidence boost for me, knowing I don't have to be perfect I can still contend and have a chance to win."

Woodland made a steady climb up the leaderboard, teeing off on 10 and making birdies at 12 and 16.

A birdie at the first put him within a shot of the lead, and he matched it at the par-three fifth where he jarred a 15-footer.

At the par-five sixth he reached the green in two, and two-putted from 21 feet.

He kept his nerve on the toughest holes on the course -- eight and nine, saving par from the greenside rough at the eighth before an unlikely closing birdie at the ninth where his tee shot was in a fairway divot.

"I didn't want to give a shot back," he said.

Woodland said his experience at last year's PGA Championship, when he played with eventual winner Brooks Koepka and with Woods on the weekend, would stand him in good stead as he tackled the weekend at Pebble Beach.

"You can't get caught up in what's going on around you," he said, adding that he'd "never seen anything like" the hubbub that surrounds Woods during a round.

"I played in a basketball arena with 16,300 people right on top of you," he said of his college playing days. "There was nothing like that.

"You learn to slow your breathing. Adrenaline is a huge deal. You learn to stay within yourself and what you have to do to calm yourself down and stay within your game plan."