ST. LOUIS – Gary Woodland kept seeing familiar faces in the crowd at the PGA Championship on Thursday even though he was in “enemy” territory.
“This is as close as I’ve ever played to home,” Woodland said. “Which is awesome. I have a million friends and family here, which is really cool. We’re kind of in enemy territory down here in Missouri. We’re big Kansas people. But the Missouri fans were nice to me today as well and I really fed off the energy that was out there surrounding the group.”
Woodland, a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Kansas, posted a scorching 30 on the back nine at Bellerive Country Club in the afternoon to take a one-shot lead over Rickie Fowler after the first round. After starting off with a bogey on the first, Woodland had seven birdies over his final 11 holes of the round.
“Maybe I tried to get off to a really good start knowing 1 and 2, if you get in the fairway, were birdie holes,” Woodland said. “And I probably pressed a little too much. But I’ll learn from that. It’s not the first time I’ve done that.”
It’s understandable if Woodland had some opening round jitters at the start. He said he recognized between 75-100 people — a little less than a million — in the gallery and had to restrain himself from trying to acknowledge everyone.
“I would say 75-100 people. Easily. Maybe more than that [in attendance],” Woodland said. “Easily today I recognized 75-100 people. People are yelling, I’m trying not to pay attention and look over there.”
Woodland, 34, is from Topeka, Kansas, a city about five hours west of St. Louis. The 2018 PGA Championship is as close Woodland has come to playing at home because professional golf is a barren wasteland in the middle of the country west of the Mississippi River.
The last PGA Tour tournament in Missouri was the 2008 BMW Championship at Bellerive. Woodland didn’t participate in it; he joined the Tour in 2009.
He’s won three PGA Tour events, including the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February. The win, his first in nearly five years, came after a 2017 that he called the toughest year of his life. His son Jaxson was born 10 weeks premature in June of that year and spent much of the summer in the hospital. As Woodland won at Phoenix earlier this year, his wife brought Jaxson to the final hole.
While Woodland has three PGA Tour wins, his performance in majors hasn’t been anything to brag about. His career-best finish is 12th and he missed the cut at the Masters this year, finished 36th at the U.S. Open and was 67th at the British Open.
The trend changed on Thursday. Woodland’s 64 was the best opening-round score he’s posted all year. A lot of that was thanks to his putting, something Woodland said he’d been working on since he got back from the British Open. He made over 150 feet in putts Thursday.
“I started to feel pretty comfortable this week and it was nice to see the results today,” he said.
If the results keep continuing over the weekend, the Missouri fans may get a little meaner knowing that a Jayhawk is in contention for the first major held in the state since 1965.
“I hope I can win them over,” Woodland said. “There’s a lot of bad blood between Kansas and Missouri. There were a lot of jokes going on, making fun of Jayhawks and how the noise they make compared to a Tiger. I heard a lot of stuff that actually made me laugh and chuckle. But it’s all in fun. I’m just happy and excited to be as close to home as I’ll ever be.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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