Ben Coley looks at the key to Gary Woodland’s success and offers more Ryder Cup speculation as he reflects on Friday’s play at the PGA.
A winning team
Say you’re a professional golfer. You’re an athlete, you hit the ball miles; in fact, you once flew the green with an eight-iron from 225 yards. You’re 34 years old, you’ve won a couple of times – you’ve even won a World Cup – you’re handsome, you’re married and you’re a parent. You’re happy.
But say you want to take your game to another level, who exactly do you call?
For some, the answer is Phil Kenyon, a man who gives putting guru its guru, and who may hold the key to Gary Woodland delivering on his promise at last. For others, the answer is perhaps Pete Cowen, the man behind Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett, and another who is now part of a potentially major-winning team.
Woodland was late to golf and could have chosen to be an NBA star, should he have so desired. As a result, he’s a 34-year-old with a 28-year-old’s profile – that is, you still feel that both the man himself and those he surrounds himself with, including swing coach Butch Harmon, haven’t quite got to the bottom of him just yet.
Enter Kenyon for the putting, Cowen for the rest of the short game, both enlisted during the Open Championship earlier this summer, where Kenyon’s capabilities were revealed in the steadfast performance of Francesco Molinari.
Woodland is a year younger and fifty yards longer than Molinari, but otherwise they share certain similarities, most notably that they go about things quietly. Neither shows a great deal of emotion on the course either in victory or defeat, and it’s possible for an onlooker to surmise that they just don’t quite care – not enough to be the best, anyway.
Molinari fixed that with the help of Kenyon and mind man Dave Alred, who worked with him to make practice sessions mean something. The Italian got used to needing to get up and down, even if it was just to move onto the next task, so when he needed to get up and down at Carnoustie, he was ready and prepared to do exactly that.
Chances are Woodland is still a little early along the road for everything to come together as it did for Molinari, but since calling Kenyon and co, his form has progressed rapidly: 67th to 22nd to 17th. Having established the halfway lead courtesy of a record-breaking 130 total and, finally, talked a good game afterwards, Woodland seems likely to keep bringing those numbers down.
Does he have the talent to be a major champion? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Does he have the mindset and the short-game? A month ago the answer was no. Now? I’m less certain.
Gary Woodland and Kevin Kisner
Yesterday, I ran through some Ryder Cup scenarios, focusing in particular on America due to the urgency of the situation. In brief, qualification ends on Sunday, and Webb Simpson looks like he’ll hold on to the eighth and final automatic spot. That leaves Jim Furyk with four places to fill.
I wonder, then, whether Tony Finau will fall victim to recency bias. At The Open, as at the US Open and the Masters, the popular 28-year-old contended – at Shinnecock, playing in the final group on Sunday and still having some kind of chance during the middle part of his back-nine.
Yet here at the PGA, despite a bananas scorecard on Friday which included just one par in the 11 holes he played before the threat of lightning halted play, and saw him cover his first nine holes in three-under despite a triple-bogey and a bogey, Finau has failed to sparkle to quite the same extent.
That he’s done so alongside captain Jim Furyk could well be troublesome, and as Woodland and Kevin Kisner lead the way, both holding claims of their own, that leaves Finau in no man’s land. It seems unlikely anything he does on the course will dramatically alter his credentials, but were either Kisner or Woodland to win, his place could become theirs.
Yet, while winning a major championship is of course deserving of a Ryder Cup place, a long, soft, receptive Bellerive is a world away from what’s expected at Le Golf National in September. Carnoustie and Shinnecock, where Finau was ninth and seventh to Woodland’s 67th and 36th, rates far more transferable form.
Then again, the criticism with Finau is that he does not win enough. Woodland has already won this year. Should he go on to hold off several of the world’s best and win his first major, the case would be closed.
When play was suspended, before players returned to the course, just three of the top 15 were from the early-late side of the draw, and seven of the top 22.
All of those teeing off late on Friday have holes in hand, but it appears certain nonetheless that the late-early brigade got the best of things and will dominate the halfway leaderboard. It can’t be helped.
It’s also easy to argue that, as you might expect on a soft, long par 70, bombers have been at a big advantage.
Currently, there are bombers in first, third and fourth. Of the top 10 players in the clubhouse, only Kevin Kisner and Francesco Molinari could be termed short, albeit only by comparison in the latter’s case as he’s added yards this year.
Of them, Dustin Johnson will stand out to many. DJ has not yet mastered the back-nine, where he’s just one-under versus six-under on the front. Reading too much into two days’ worth of numbers is not advisable, but we perhaps still ought to expect an early move on Saturday given the damage he has done on Bellerive’s opening nine holes.
Yet this does feel achingly similar to the US Open. There, Johnson putted beautifully for a couple of rounds but was reeled in by the combination of an awful Saturday set-up, a downturn in his putting and some superb golf by the likes of Koepka, Finau and Daniel Berger.
Fast forward two months, and Johnson has again putted extremely well to this point. Koepka is ahead of him by a shot, yet he has putted much worse. If we assume that Johnson will struggle to continue to putt this well and that Koepka can only get better, it’s the two-time major champion who looks the better bet at this point.
Margins in golf are fine, and it could well be that one shot makes the difference between a Ryder Cup pick and a place among that impressive group of vice captains for Sergio Garcia.
Perhaps the shot will be the mid-iron he hit into the sixth green on Friday which found water, resulting in a double-bogey which appears likely to see him miss the cut by one shot, if not two.
Perhaps the shot will be his approach to the 72nd hole of the Open de France, at Le Golf National, where in going for glory he sacrificed second for eighth.
Perhaps it will be the first of those 13 strokes he took at the 15th hole of his Masters defence back in the spring, before which he’d appeared to be the same old Sergio, albeit with changes afoot back home.
Whatever the case, Thomas Bjorn made clear on the eve of this tournament that he wants Garcia on that team, as good as begging the Spaniard to find something, anything, for him to cling on to.
That means this was not his final chance, but having now missed six of his last seven cuts in the US and failed to make any kind of impact anywhere bar Paris since the spring, it was certainly a good chance missed.
Garcia now heads to the Wyndham Championship. Six years ago, on a damp and miserable Monday, he won that title, his first in the US for four years, to seal his return to the Ryder Cup side having missed Celtic Manor.
A year prior to that, the Spaniard finished second in Germany to qualify for The Open, moving from 51st to 47th in the world in the nick of time, so there are still grounds for hope.
In four starts at Sedgefield Country Club, Garcia has finished, in order, third, fourth, first and 29th. What he’d do even for the latter right now.
Thorbjorn Olesen, by the way, is scheduled to feature in the Nordea Masters but Thomas Pieters, who now leads the European charge this week and is increasingly a factor in Ryder Cup conversations, is due to take a break.