RENO — For Gary Woodland, the biggest positive about winning the 15th annual Reno-Tahoe Open on Sunday was getting an automatic invitation to this week’s PGA Championship and the two-year exemption that comes with a tour victory.
“It (the exemption) is huge,” said Woodland, who didn’t realize he’d received the PGA invite until he got into the scoring tent after his round. “I mean, that definitely gives you some comfort. More importantly for me, it just validates what we’ve been doing. It’s been a long process the last couple of years. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction; we just didn’t have any results. Now we have results that we’re doing the right things. We have a long ways to go, but we’re doing the right things and we’ll continue to get better.”
The win was Woodland’s second career championship, and thanks to back-to-back birdies late in the round, he finished with 44 points and a comfortable nine-point win over Jonathan Byrd and Andres Romero, both of whom finished with 35 points. Woodland won the 2011 Transitions title. The RTO win gives him exempt status through 2015.
One of the “right things” Woodland was talking about was the hiring of Pat Goss, Luke Donald’s golf coach, to be his short-game coach. Goss started working with Woodland the week of the Masters, and on Sunday Woodland saw the fruits of his labor. Woodland got up and down for pars five times Sunday, and then made three birdies in the last five holes en route to the title.
“It (the short game) has been coming,” Woodland said. “I led Memorial in scrambling. I feel really comfortable on fast greens, and these greens were really fast this week. Unfortunately I missed a lot of green, but I was hitting the ball well enough. I gave myself opportunities to get up and down, and that was the key. Even though I wasn’t hitting greens, I was hitting it in the right spot.
“Today was tough. I knew I had to come out and play well. I knew I had to make birdies. The wind definitely made this course today. Jonathan Byrd’s round was phenomenal. Obviously, he got off early.”
Birdies were one thing that avoided Woodland most of the day. After starting with back-to-back pars, Woodland notched his first birdie of the day at No. 3 with a 7-foot putt. He saved par on No. 2 when he holed out from a greenside bunker.
The newest RTO champ then went out and parred the next 10 holes. He got up and down to save pars on Nos. 4, 8, 10 and 13. At that point, he had a 6-point lead over Mathis, Steele and Byrd, who had to stick around a while in case of a playoff.
Despite the lack of birdies, nobody was making a move on him.
“I felt that way (letting people back in), but nobody was making a run on me,” Woodland said. “I knew Jonathan Byrd posted early, so I knew I was safe there. I felt like I was playing good (golf). I felt like I hit every lip and lipped out every hole. I was surprised nobody made a run.”
Then came the 14th, which turned out to be the key hole for Woodland, who had a chip-in birdie.
Woodland pulled his tee shot into the hazard of the short par-4, which was a drivable hole the last two days.
“I got lucky to find my ball on 14,” Woodland said. “I just kind of chopped it out. The chip that went in, I was just trying to get it on the green. It was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.”
Steele birdied the 15th, but Woodland answered from 21 feet.
“To answer him (Steele) was huge,” Woodland said. “He had that momentum, and I kind of stole it back and rode it the rest of the way.”
Woodland wrapped up the round with a par on 16, bogey on 17 and a birdie on the 72nd hole. The powerful Kansas graduate talked about his mental game plan being another key to his victory, and why he played slower this week.
“I was trying to stay in the moment — staying focused on what I was doing,” Woodland said. “I knew I’d been playing well. I made a bunch of cuts. I haven’t missed a cut since March. I had one withdrawal in that stretch. I’ve been playing really well. I just had to relax. I’ve been putting too much pressure on myself. My plan was to let everything go, let the bad shots go. If I mis-clubbed or missed putts, let it go.
“It (having to calculate the distances because of the wind and altitude) helped me slow down, because I like to play fast. It was definitely a lot of numbers. I definitely played slower this week. My caddie and I talked a lot more this week than we usually do.”
Byrd, who had 11 points Saturday, climbed back into the race with a record-setting 18 points. He had seven birdies, an eagle and a bogey en route to what would have been a 64 in stroke play.
Byrd, who had two top-20s in his last two trips to Reno, said Saturday’s round gave him a lot of confidence.
“Yesterday I had an eagle and made like three or four birdies, and just felt good on the golf course” Byrd said. “I felt like I was getting into a good rhythm yesterday, and I haven’t felt that a whole lot this year. That was one of the few days I’ve felt that way on the golf course. I felt like I was going to hit good shots. That’s the way I felt today.
“Today, my whole mindset was just be a little more aggressive and give myself some chances; just free it up. I was able to do that today, and getting off to a hot start (helped).”
Byrd downright sizzled from the outset.
On No. 1, he holed out from the intermediate rough for birdie and on No. 2, a par-5, he knocked in a 2-foot birdie putt to get to plus-21. On the par-3 third, he hit his tee shot and it plugged in the bunker. He was able to get up and down to save par. He followed that up with putts from 47 and 10 feet, respectively, to get to plus-25.
“I just felt like I was off to the races,” Byrd said. “I just felt like I had to keep the pedal down. I shot 8-under if you’re keeping score, but I three-putted No. 8. With a 7 or 8-iron in my hand I made par. I had par on two par-5s. That was a little under my skin.”
Byrd kept going on the back nine with a birdie on Nos. 10 and 11, an eagle on the par-5 13th and a final birdie on the short par-4.
“Here for sure,” Byrd said when asked if it was the best two-day effort at Montreux. “I don’t know if I’d had a top-10 here, so this is the best I’ve played here.”
Romero, who was in second place after the second round, carded five birdies, which offset two bogeys. He finished with eight points on the day.
Romero two-putted from 24 feet for birdie on No. 2 and then knocked in a 28-footer for birdie at the par-4 5th. He strung together five straight pars before canning a 10-footer for birdie at the par-3 11th to get to 32. He gave back a point with a bogey on No. 12, but got two back with a two-putt from 34 feet to move to 33 points. On No. 18, he chipped to 2 feet and drained a birdie putt to catch Byrd.
“I went to the tournament knowing that I needed to do a good tournament because I was behind in the FedExCup,” Romero said. “I needed to play well.”
“The first two days were really good days for me. The third day wasn’t very good, but I knew I had one more day to go, and I tried to do my best.”
Steele had no pressure coming in because he was already headed to the playoffs. He managed just three points on the day after racking up 30 in the first three days.
“I’m really happy with the week overall,” Steele said. “I don’t like how I played today. I didn’t really have what I had yesterday. I didn’t feel very good with the putter. I holed a couple of long ones, but I wasn’t very good in close.
“My iron play wasn’t very sharp. I drove the ball OK. But overall I wasn’t as sharp as I was the first three days. I played well the first day, but just didn’t get much out of it.”
Steele had three birdies on three bogeys. The bogeys came on Nos. 16 and 17, but Woodland already had the tournament sewn up.