Gary Woodland ready for Bay Hill test after ‘encouraging’ week.

Gary Woodland took a long look across the large practice green at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on Tuesday, and it kind of felt like home. It should. Woodland used to live just a short drive away in Orlando’s gated Lake Nona community, and pretty much grew up as a professional around here, a regular at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.

He lives down the east coast in Delray Beach now, a Kansas guy near the ocean. A good deal has changed since Woodland last was here in 2016, which was Arnold Palmer’s last year as host. Woodland became a father, for one, as he and his wife, Gabby, now look after three young children, including twin girls born in 2019.

Golf-wise, Woodland, now 37, winner of the 2019 U.S. Open, just hasn’t felt like himself for a couple of years. Once ranked as highly as 12th in the Official World Ranking, he slid to No. 142 before teeing it up in last week’s Honda Classic. A lot played into that slide, including injuries that promoted poor swing habits.

He reached a breaking point after missing the cut at the WM Phoenix Open three weeks ago. It was time to accept where he was, and then start doing something about it. At the rugged Honda Classic on Sunday, where danger lurks everywhere, Woodland tied for fifth. Sunday, he shot 67 in difficult conditions. It was one tournament, sure, but the way he felt on the golf course was, well, different. And that in itself was refreshing to him.

“On one of the most demanding golf courses we see all year (PGA National), it was pretty stress-free for me,” Woodland said. “Even when I got into trouble, I knew what I was doing. I felt comfortable all week. Coming down the stretch on Sunday – 15, 17, those holes can jump up and get you – and I felt as good as I’ve felt in a long time. I’m talking a couple of years. That was nice.”

Woodland has been one of the PGA TOUR’s premier ballstrikers for years. The mammoth drives, the 2-iron stingers, the crisp, towering irons. Solid tee to green, his successes often came down to his putting. But Woodland grew so uneasy with his long game that he said he stood in fairways in Phoenix with little idea where he his next shot might travel.

“On 15 there, par 5, I had a 6-iron into the green that I pulled into a bunker,” he said. “I said, ‘Butchy (what he calls his caddie, Brennan Little), I don’t know where this thing is going.’ That’s a horrible feeling. I can’t play this way.”

Woodland went home and got to work. It helps that a bad hip that had bothered him was now pain-free, and he can make the motions in his powerful swing that he needs to make. His putting has been pretty good, frankly. He has worked hard on it with Phil Kenyon, and it was solid again at Honda. Only a three-putt from 8 feet at the final hole kept him from being in the top 10 in strokes gained. He will look for more of the same at Bay Hill.

A well-rounded athlete, Woodland usually walks around TOUR stops the way Clint Eastwood used to walk through Westerns. There’s a presence about him, and you wouldn’t want to see him in an alley. He acknowledges that some of his swagger is back. Honda marked the first of four consecutive Florida starts for him (he is a past champion at Valspar) as he looks to build some rhythm. Woodland’s veteran caddie, Little, likes the way things seem to be trending.

“We all know this game,” Little said. “It knocks you down, and then you start to see guys playing well, so he’s on a good track getting up. Now he just needs to keep climbing. His practice rounds have been good, his swing has been good, but you have to get it done. Until you see results, it’s really hard for a guy to get confidence.”

Woodland used to work with Butch Harmon, and when the legendary teacher retired in 2018, it had a big impact on him. Beyond providing thoughts on the swing, Harmon was an endless resource in building up a player’s confidence. Woodland has been working with Mark Blackburn, who teaches a handful of TOUR players including Max Homa, and he’s happy with the progress they’ve made. He has some Harmon “feels” back. But there is nothing quite like having the sage voice of Harmon in his ear.

“It was hard on me. I relied on Butch, more for confidence than anything,” Woodland said. “He’s always a phone call away, I know. But there were numerous times when I’ve gone to see him, and you feel like you’re the worst golfer in the world. When you leave, you feel like you’re the best golfer in the world – no matter how you’re playing.”

Woodland is thankful that he reached a tipping point and hit pause on the season. His missed cut in Phoenix (68-73) led to a long flight home and an honest assessment of where he was in his game. An elite player who was on the 2019 Presidents Cup team, he wasn’t feeling too elite. It was his sixth missed cut in eight starts this season, and there was work to do. Since, he has begun to feel things coming together. Bay Hill, where the rough is thick and lush, will be every bit of demanding as Honda was a week ago. Bring it on, he says.

“I think I was denying where I had dropped in the world, denying everything that has happened,” Woodland said. “It was time to accept it, and move on, and start working my way back.

“Last week was a big step for me. I was able to do stuff last week hitting a golf ball that I hadn’t done in a long time. That’s encouraging to me. There are no more Band-Aid fixes. You have to accept where you are, and start climbing back up.”

Here in a town where his professional career pretty much got jump-started, Woodland is in a good place mentally, and ready to climb again.

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