Gary Woodland and Brooks Koepka go head-to-head in US Open duel

Gary Woodland was born in Kansas, in the city of Topeka, which translates from the original Siouan as ‘a good place to dig potatoes’. 

It is a recommendation Woodland has long followed. ‘We’re steak and potato boys,’ he told Golf magazine. ‘I grew up on meat. The look of fish or shellfish, the smell of it, the texture, I can’t stand any of it. So I’ve never had it and I don’t ever plan on doing so.’

Leaving aside the issue of where exactly he’s been eating dinner on the California coast this last week – Monterey’s main drag isn’t called Fisherman’s Wharf for nothing – Woodland’s red-blooded, red meat presence reflects a growing trend in American golf. 

Gary Woodland emerged victorious at Pebble Beach and took his first major in golf

Sealing with a fist pump, Woodland respectfully waited for play to end before celebrating

Old-fashioned Jocks. Guys who started on basketball scholarships or playing baseball and switched, in the college years, to their second sport. 

Justin Rose was a Mister Muscle figure on Sunday, sandwiched between two prime hunks of American beef: Woodland and the man who, more than anyone, has made the bovine blueprint work. Brooks Koepka.

That Woodland held firm to see off golf’s number one and win his first major was impressive enough. That he beat him at his own game made it doubly so. Koepka, chasing a fifth major and his third straight US Open, is an influencer, the way Arnold Palmer was, the way Tiger Woods was. 

This new generation are the sons of Tiger in many ways, picking up on his obsession with physical fitness and driving it to new levels. It used to be that the finesse, the softness, of golf was surrendered in the battle to bulk up. 

Woodland found himself head-to-head with Brooks Koepka at the US Open on the decisive day

Defending champion Koepka kept the pressure on until the last, but fell just short

These days trainers are so specialised, their clients so aware, that bodies are tuned to perfection, and in all the right areas. Johnny Miller said he became musclebound and lost his touch after chopping wood to build strength.

Koepka and Woodland can rip it one minute, then feather the ball with subtlety around greens the next. And as it is bringing phenomenal results, this is fast becoming the route to follow.

Woodland’s background is basketball; Koepka’s baseball. His great uncle, Dick Groat, was a legendary short stop with Pittsburgh Pirates, the National League’s most valuable player in 1960 and an all-star selection on eight occasions; his father pitched for West Virginia Wesleyan college, and passed that enthusiasm to his son. 

Koepka junior only took up golf when his involvement in contact sports was curtailed for a summer after fracturing his nose in a car accident. ‘If I could do it all again, I’d play baseball, 100 per cent,’ said the world number one. He spits like a baller, too, by the way.

Woodland got even closer to his alternate career path. He went to Washburn University in Kansas on a basketball scholarship but wasn’t good enough, and switched to golf at the University of Kansas a year later. 

KU, as it is known, is not the traditional grounding for professional golfers and it is no surprise that one of Woodland’s most prominent supporters is the university’s basketball coach Bill Self. ‘I first saw Gary when he played against us for Washburn,’ Self recalls. ‘I tell him he didn’t even make our scouting report.’

Yet while America’s new breed may have entered golf on the rebound, they have brought with them the aesthetic of more aerobic and physically competitive sports. 

Rose, whose challenge had ebbed by the end here, is a lean, fit, athlete, but his progress around these links until Sunday was a triumph of touch and feel, of single shot putting and astute bunker play. It could not have been more different to the Americans duking it out.

Theirs is big boys golf, right down to the sizable half dollar coin from 1984 that Woodland uses to mark his ball on the green. A present from his mom, apparently, from the year he was born. Most contemporaries use a modest lucky penny. 

Equally, Woodland elicited mild surprise by arriving at the course carrying his own bag. It’s a Jock thing, another remnant of his basketball days. ‘The first time I played with him, we were at Lawrence Country Club in Kansas,’ recalled coach Self. ‘I knew he was long and had heard all this stuff. I’d been told he had the most clubhead speed ever recorded. So we were playing number one, which is 360 yards, all carry, uphill. He drove the green and made a 15-foot putt for two. I thought, ‘Oh, my God’.’

Justin Rose was also in contention for the title during Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach

There were moments that drew a similar reaction, powering out of thick rough at the 11th to within 13 feet of the hole; or the 263 yard carry with a fairway three wood that helped Woodland achieve a crucial two shot lead at the 14th. 

Koepka’s power plays attract similar sentiments. Yet Pebble Beach is one of the shorter championship courses and this was as much a victory for brain as brawn. It was not just about mighty striking. 

Koepka’s touch, and his temperament, have made him the whole package, and Woodland has been too, this week. He has shown the strongest mind, as well as the strongest body – not least when chipping from distance on the 17th green. Like Koepka, even under pressure, he wore two expressions. The first suggested all was in hand, the second that even if it wasn’t, he’s not going to sweat it.

Koepka’s placid appearance, too, belies the enormous level of focus and effort that has got him to here. He arrives for work at the course in what might be termed gymwear. He targets his events – the majors, most obviously – with a precision more common in team sports. 

Everything is geared towards that one big win, the crucial six-point game and the rest takes cares of itself. He is the first player to shoot five consecutive rounds in the 60s at US Opens, including his last 18 a year ago. Woodland hasn’t experienced that level of success, but was equally unfussy – see ball, hit ball, as the Americans call it. 

This new approach will be influential, because it is not hard to copy. The next generation won’t always be able to make it work like this pair, but they can follow the map. 

Get fit, get strong, get focussed, grip it and rip it. As Rose slipped down the leaderboard, Woodland’s only challenger was Koepka, the heavyweight champion keeping his usurper honest, going into the final nine, when major championships truly begin.

Rose couldn’t be bullied out of it until late but, ultimately, his putting could no longer save him. Going into Sunday’s round he was not in the top 60 for driving accuracy, or hitting greens in regulation – but was the best on the green by some distance. When that part of his game faded, the result was inevitable. 

The Americans didn’t exactly kick sand in his face, but a trend is emerging. Where’s the beef? Heading to the practice range, apparently.

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