PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Gary Woodland, a pure athlete who only started serious golf competition eight years ago, figured out quickly that hitting the ball from here to the moon was not going to help him win tournaments.
Perhaps it was only fitting that his biggest shot Sunday at the Transitions Championship came with his putter.
The race to the finish at Innisbrook was so wild that Woodland didn’t make a single par on the back nine until the last hole. He made a 10-foot par putt that proved to be the difference in a one-shot victory over Webb Simpson.
“I can’t come out here and hit the golf ball 900 yards and win,” said Woodland, exaggerating only slightly. “I was very conservative this week, laid back almost all day — all four days — and just tried to get the ball in the fairway, get it on the green and let the putter do the work. That’s what I’m learning.”
The final par — his only par on a back nine that featured five birdies and three bogeys — gave Woodland a 4-under 67 and his first trip to Augusta National for the Masters.
Simpson also flew long on the 18th green and faced the same scary shot as Woodland in the group ahead. He off the back of the green, chipped 20 feet by the hole and the par putt was the only bad stroke he made all day. The bogey gave him a 69 and a runner-up finish in an otherwise solid performance for his first time in serious contention.
“I just didn’t hit a very good second shot,” Simpson said.
Woodland took only 23 putts in the final round — 10 on the back nine. According to the Shotlink data, he didn’t miss a single putt inside 20 feet in the final round, with four of those 17 putts outside 10 feet.
Woodland, who played college basketball at Washburn until deciding to transfer to Kansas to play golf, became the first player to earn his inaugural PGA Tour title at Innisbrook.
The win gives Woodland an invitation to Augusta National, where his awesome power and soft putting touch could make for an interesting marriage at the Masters. A late-bloomer, Woodland missed the second half of his rookie season two years ago with shoulder surgery, but began to show his potential when he lost in a playoff at the Bob Hope Classic.
Woodland finished at 15-under 269 and earned $990,000, moving up to No. 3 in the FedEx Cup standings.
“One thing that helped me was putting, and today it saved me,” Woodland said. “Luckily, it won me a golf tournament.”
Scott Stallings, a PGA Tour rookie who missed every cut on the West Coast Swing to fall to the bottom of the status ladder, kept his poise and stayed in the game until the 16th, the toughest driving hole on the Copperhead course with trees to the left and water to the right. Stallings went right into the lake and made double bogey.
Even so, he shot a 70 and finished alone in third, which gets him in the Houston Open in two weeks.
“A sponsor exemption changed my year, and I can’t thank Transitions enough,” Stallings said. “Without them giving me an opportunity to play, there’s no way I would have been here. One good tournament completely changed my year.”
Brandt Snedeker finished fourth.
Justin Rose, a two-time winner last year who started the final round with a one-shot lead, was tied for the lead until making four straight bogeys through the 10th hole to fall out of contention. He wound up five shots behind.
Nick Watney, coming off a World Golf Championship title at Doral last week, played with Woodland and fell out of the mix quickly by failing to make putts. Watney didn’t make a birdie and closed with a 72 and tied for 13th, the first time Watney has been out of the top 10 all year. That means his two-month bet with caddie Chad Reynolds is over, and both can now get a hair cut.
Martin Kaymer, the world No. 1, closed with a 69 to tie for 20th.
Woodland played conservatively around the Copperhead course, usually hitting 2-iron off the tee. He hit one shot 337 yards uphill on one of the few holes he used driver, leading to a birdie.
Another driver didn’t work out so well. He came out of his swing on the par-5 11th, and the ball went over and through the trees before settling in light rough between the tee and green on the 17th. He could only pitch a wedge to the 17th tee, and he had to scramble for bogey. Woodland followed with three straight birdies, the last one a 12-footer from the fringe on the 14th to take the lead.
Then came a flubbed chip on the 15th, and a bad bunker shot on the 16th, two bogeys to fall one shot behind. Woodland came up with another clutch putt on the 17th for birdie from 15 feet, setting up the biggest putt of them all.
Woodland was No. 153 in the world ranking, making him the ninth PGA Tour winner to be ranked 100th or lower.
He becomes the latest pure athlete to make an impression on the PGA Tour, cut out of the mold of Dustin Johnson. The difference is that Woodland still lacks polish. His only national competition was as a shortstop in baseball and a point guard in basketball. He originally turned down a golf scholarship at Kansas to play basketball at Division II Washburn.
In his first game, he scored three points in Allen Fieldhouse against the Jayhawks, and figured he better try golf.
Midway through his first year on tour in 2009, he had shoulder surgery, which turned out to be the best thing for him.
“I was athletic, but I didn’t know what I was doing out here,” he said. “I got hurt, and I had to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I’m starting to figure that out right now.”
DIVOTS: Bubba Watson shot a 68 in the final round, then gave the PGA Tour a check for $50,000 for the Red Cross to help with the relief efforts in Japan. … Sergio Garcia shot 71 and tied for 15th in this first PGA Tour event since the PGA Championship last August.