Gary Woodland has never won a major but has an excellent chance of changing that after his record-equalling 65 at Pebble Beach on Friday.
Woodland headed to the final hole of his second round – the ninth – already five-under-par for his round after a superb display, so when he nailed an unlikely 50-footer for birdie to equal the lowest ever round at Pebble Beach just a day after McIlroy managed the same, it was only icing on the cake.
Holing the monster putt for his sixth birdie of the day turned a 66 into a six-under-par 65, an eight-under-par total into a nine-under one, and a one-shot lead into a two-stroke cushion heading into the weekend. It also broke Tiger Woods’ 36-hole scoring record set during his famous 15-shot victory in 2000.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 15, 2019
Not a bad return for a player who failed to record a top-10 finish in his first 27 major championship appearances, and who has always tended to be overlooked despite his three PGA Tour titles.
Long known as one of the game’s power hitters, Woodland’s short game has frequently lagged behind, but at the age of 35 the hard work he’s put in at improving that aspect of his game is starting to pay off.
“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 said the turnaround in his short game started last year.
“Short game has come around,” he added. 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.”
Woodland’s only other previous major performance of note came at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive, where he also held the 36-hole lead before eventually finishing sixth, and was able to contend even 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.”
The performance at Bellerive also gave him a chance to play alongside Tiger Woods on the weekend, and Woodland said that was a major learning experience as well in coping with the huge galleries and intense atmosphere that comes along with contending in a major.
“You learn to slow your breathing,” he said. “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.”
Woodland holds a two-shot lead over first-round leader Justin Rose, whose second-round 70 was a lot more sedate than his blistering 65 on day one, but still leaves the 2013 US Open in an excellent position heading into the weekend.
“If someone had asked if I would accept seven under after 36 holes, I would have asked if that was the final offer,” said the recent World No 4. “But I would have taken it for sure. I’m happy. I’m in the perfect position going into the weekend. I’m in contention.”
Lying in third place is perennial major contender Louis Oosthuizen, who followed up his opening 66 with a 70 to get it to six under. Were the 2010 Open champion to win on Sunday he would become only the third player in history to win major championships at St. Andrews and Pebble Beach. The other two? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
The South African’s 70 on Friday was a turbulent one, however, featuring seven birdies and six dropped shots.
“Seven birdies and six bogeys. I’m not a big fan of bogeys, I had a lot of bogeys on my scorecard,” he said. “But you miss these greens, it’s so difficult around the greens out of the rough. And you can’t control the ball. You basically are guessing what it’s going to do.”
Still very much in contention is Rory McIlroy, who shot his second consecutive round in the 60s – a 69 to follow up his opening 68 – to join Aaron Wise (71) in fourth place on five under.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 14, 2019
McIlroy probably should have been a lot closer, however, but undid much of his good work earlier in the round when he followed up a bogey at the 13th with a double-bogey on the very next hole.
His troubles at the 14th started with a mishit wedge from 110 yards that saw his ball come rolling down the front of the green. And then rather than take his medicine, he tried to play a fancy flop shot over a bunker and succeeded only in finding sand elsewhere.
“You’re trying to play a very precise shot to get it close to the hole to save your par, and that didn’t go to plan,” he said.
“It just sort of compounded the error with another error, which you never really want to do.”
McIlroy bounced back superbly from that disappointment with back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16, however, to salvage his round and keep himself in the hunt.
Lying a further shot back and five off the pace is two-time defending champion and World No 1 Brooks Koepka, who kept himself in the picture with a second straight 69 despite not having much luck on the greens.
“I feel great. I’m excited. I’ve got a chance,” he said. “That’s all you can ask for. I just need to make a few putts. Sometimes the hole just needs to open up.”
Koepka shares sixth place with Matt Kuchar (69), Matt Wallace (68), Chesson Hadley (7) and Chez Reavie (70).
Jon Rahm and Graeme McDowell are among those on three under a stroke behind, while Dustin Johnson (69) and Francesco Molinari (72) can’t be ruled out yet either a further shot back.
As for Tiger Woods, he has a lot of work to do after rounds of 70 and 72 left him on level par, nine shots back in tied-32nd place.
Woods failed to get much going at Pebble Beach on Friday, with a lone birdie at the 11th not enough to offset back-to-back bogeys at the eighth and ninth – his two closing holes of the day.
Understandably, he wasn’t too pleased with that finish.
“Yeah, I’m a little hot right now,” Woods said. “I just signed my card about a minute ago, so need a little time to cool down a little bit.”
“Right now, I’m still in the ball game,” he added. “There’s so many guys with a chance to win. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ll see how it shapes up for [Saturday]. The golf course can be a little bit faster, a little bit more springy than it was [Friday] and scores will continue to back up a little bit.”
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