Six or seven years ago Harrison Frazar pulled up to Royal Oaks, his home club in Dallas, and received a rude welcome. An employee told him, "You better go down to the range because there's a kid there who hits it farther than you do."
Frazar, now a 15-year PGA Tour veteran, has ranked as high as third in driving distance. He has long enjoyed his standing as the longest hitter at Royal Oaks. He strutted to the range and found Gary Woodland, then an undergraduate at Kansas, smacking four-irons for Royal Oaks's head pro, Randy Smith. Woodland wanted to hit a few drivers but was concerned he might reach the players on the teeing ground at the other end of the range. They were 320 yards away, into the wind. "When it's blowing like this, I can only roll it within 10 yards of them, " Frazar woofed. "Don't worry about it."
On his first swing Woodland smashed a drive over the heads of the unsuspecting folks off in the distance.
"Well, you were right, Harrison," Smith said. "He doesn't have to worry about them."
The legend of Gary Woodland, 27, has long been told around Texas and the Great Plains. In a game that is increasingly being defined by speed and power, he is an athlete of supreme gifts, a thick-shouldered, fast-twitch, 6'1", 195-pound onetime college basketball player who is only now beginning to harness his jaw-dropping potential. The larger golf world discovered Woodland last year, when as a sophomore on Tour he won the Transitions Championship (needing only 23 putts on Sunday), had 14 other top-25 finishes and launched more than a quarter of his drives at least 320 yards.
"He can be the best player in the world, if that's what he wants," says Frazar. "He simply needs to avoid all the distractions."
There have been plenty of them lately, as Woodland's rise to stardom was complicated by his decision to change agents at the end of 2011, signing with Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods's wingman. One problem: The agent Woodland left behind is Blake Smith, Randy's son. Woodland had hoped to continue working with his longtime coach, but for Randy Smith it was an untenable situation. He ended his professional relationship with Woodland and canceled a trip to Maui for the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Last week Woodland looked lost at the Plantation course, finishing three under, 20 strokes behind winner Steve Stricker. Woodland blamed a scratchy opening 73 on being overly eager to "put all this other stuff behind me. I was a little too pumped up, a little too anxious."
He didn't hide his unease about being without a coach. "I don't really understand what I do," Woodland said with typical candor. "Until I get to that point I'm going to need someone to tell me what to do." After playing coy all week, Woodland revealed after Monday's final round that he would begin working with Butch Harmon. He left Maui and proceeded directly to Las Vegas, to get to work at Harmon's golf school.
Even as Woodland struggled on the wide-open Plantation course, his legend grew; during the first round, on the severely downhill 663-yard, par-5 18th hole, he mauled a drive that traveled 450 yards, leaving only a baby eight-iron in. It is this mind-blowing power that makes Woodland such a tantalizing prospect. At the Chevron World Challenge last month, as Woodland and Steinberg were just beginning their discussions, Woods anointed his soon-to-be stablemate in a rare bit of public gushing.
"I always thought that I could hit it a ways when I was younger and I had another gear," Tiger said. "That's what Gary has, which is fun to watch because he'll simply hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it -- and then he'll step on one and it's like, Whoa. He has another gear that the other guys don't have. I've talked to Dustin [Johnson] about it; I've talked to Bubba [Watson] about it. They don't have that extra little gear that he has."
Approached last week, Watson didn't exactly concur with Woods's paraphrasing. "There are five or 10 tour pros around the world who could be the longest hitter, depending on the conditions and how they're swinging and feeling at any given time. Some days it might be J.B. Holmes or Dustin Johnson or Robert Garrigus or me, or maybe that guy in Europe, [Alvaro] Quiros. But some days it probably is Gary Woodland. It just depends."
Whereas Watson generates his power with the unusual angles and levers in his homemade swing, and the long-limbed, supple, 6'3" Johnson has a massive arc, Woodland's action is built on blunt force. At times it appears as if he's swinging a hammer. "He is freakishly strong," says Bill Haas. "Basketball strong. I'm pretty sure his workouts growing up were more intense than mine."
Yet what Watson admires most about Woodland is not his pop. "It's his mind," says Bubba. "He's very patient, very focused. He looks very calm on the golf course. He never looks worried about anything."
Woodland has the self belief of a jock who grew up dominating team sports in his native Topeka, Kans. He was a standout shortstop who at 16 led his team to the NBC World Series title, hitting a grand slam in the semifinals to key a 5-4 victory. In high school hoops Woodland was an all-state shooting guard who carried his squad to two state championships. Kansas offered him a golf scholarship, but Woodland chose to play basketball at Topeka's Division II Washburn University. As a freshman he had his best game against Northwest Missouri State, scoring 21 second-half points in a barrage that included five straight three-pointers. Later that year, in the national tournament, Woodland made the winning free throws with eight seconds left to defeat West Texas A&M. For the season he shot 32% from three-point range and 87% from the line, but he was realistic enough to accept that basketball was not a viable career option. So in 2003, at the end of his freshman year, he transferred to Kansas and made golf his priority for the first time. He won four tournaments as a Jayhawk, then apprenticed on the Hooters and Nationwide tours.
Woodland's sudden rise is not a surprise to those who know him best. "He's the most confident person I've ever met," his girlfriend, Gabby Granado, told the Tampa Bay Times last year. "It is set in his mind, he just knows, that he will be Number 1 in the world. He's constantly working to be the best in the world, and he's not going to stop until he's there."
The buzz around Woodland only increased in November when he teamed with Matt Kuchar to win the World Cup for the U.S. After Woods, Kuchar was the second player Steinberg brought to his new post at Excel Sports, where he landed last July after leaving IMG. Shortly after the World Cup, Woodland reached out to Steinberg. It's clear that Woodland thought that even if he changed agents, he could maintain his relationship with his coach.
"Randy has been everything to me," he said last week, and the affection was evident a few years ago when Royal Oaks was fund-raising to build Smith a new practice facility. Woodland was the first player to write a check. But Woodland's abrupt departure from Blake Smith and his agency, Hambric Sports, was a deal breaker. Says Randy Smith, "Gary's leaving was such a shock -- I had no clue, and Blake had no clue. If Gary had sat down with Blake and said, I have problems with this, this and this, and I can't get it solved and I'm going to leave, I would still work with Gary. Because business is business. But the way this was handled, it put me in a position where I couldn't be a part of it."
In Maui, Woodland seemed to still be downcast about the split, but he tried hard to be philosophical, saying, "I made the decision that was best for me business-wise."
It was certainly a coup for Steinberg as he continues to build what he calls his "boutique agency." He plans to market Woodland "very aggressively," adding, "He's a nice kid with a lot of personality. He has a good look and a great background, in regards to being a basketball player turned golfer. And he hits it a mile. The public eats that up."
But Steinberg knows as well as anybody how quickly the hype can disappear. "It all comes back to performance," he says.
Woodland has found a good fit in Harmon, who specializes in long-hitting Americans: Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Nick Watney. Woodland has the same kind of talent level; at times he can make the game look too easy, but he's now learned how quickly the business side of his job can complicate matters. Before he left Maui, Woodland was asked what he had been looking for, philosophically, in his next swing coach. He gave a telling answer.