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U.S. Open: Gary Woodland receives inner strength, inspiration from Special Olympian Amy Bockerstette

Palm Beach Post - 6/17/2019

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The words will resonate with Gary Woodland for the rest of his life.

"I got this."

On Sunday, as he was chasing his first major tournament at the U.S. Open, Woodland, who lives in Delray Beach, kept repeating those words he heard from Amy Bockerstette at the Phoenix Open in January.

Amy, a Special Olympic golfer with Down Syndrome, joined Woodland at the famous par-3 16th stadium hole at TPC Scottsdale. As she stood over her tee shot, she said to herself, "I got this," for the first time. Reminding herself over and over by repeating those three words, by the time she got to her par putt, Woodland told Amy, "You got this, let's do it."

And she did, sinking the 8-foot putt that put tears in millions of eyes as the video went viral.

On Sunday, as he stood over shot-after-shot on the back nine of Pebble Beach that led to a final-round 2-under 69 to decide the U.S. Open, Woodland channeled his inner Amy.

"I got this," he kept telling himself.

"I said that a lot today," he would say later.

Amy sent a message to Woodland via Twitter: 'You've got this' she wrote as he entered the final round with a one-shot lead over No. 3 in the world (Justin Rose) and four shots better than No. 1 in the world (Jupiter's Brooks Koepka). Later, after his endless loop of media obligation, Woodland, with the silver trophy sitting next to him, had Amy on speaker phone. She congratulated her hero. Woodland then said the two will see each other soon to play some golf.

Woodland and Amy will be linked forever.

"She's meant everything for me from a mental standpoint," Woodland said. "The world needs more of her in it. Her attitude, her love for life, love for the game and her positive energy is so contagious. And I've had the pleasure to continue to speak with her. She sent me a nice video when I got sick and had to pull out of Wells Fargo. She sent me an amazing birthday video, singing 'Happy Birthday' to me. She's a special girl, special parents, and it's nice to call her a friend."

Who knows. Who knows how this story would have ended had Gary Woodland and Amy Bockerstette never met on that day in Phoenix, had never played one hole that became the most viewed video ever on the PGA Tour website. Because Woodland needed every bit of that inspiration on Sunday, every bit of that inner strength to hold off two of the top three golfers in the world and one – Koepka – who has become the most feared when it comes to majors.

And Woodland needed every bit of that concentration and those steely nerves as the lead was reduced to one shot when he bogeyed No. 12.

But Woodland would hit the first of the two most important shots of his career on the par-5 No. 14 when he pulled out a 5-wood from 263 yards and put in on the fringe. He would get up and down for a birdie to extend the lead.

Although Woodland gave all the credit to his caddie, Brennan Little, for reminding him to stay aggressive; an assist has to go to the man who was on his tail, the man who was chasing his fifth major in two years.

Knowing Koepka was lurking meant never wavering mentally.

"I think from a mental standpoint I was as good as I've ever been," Woodland said.

Koepka is building a Hall-of-Fame career by blocking out everything else and attacking a course with laser-like focus. That look we see in Koepka's eyes as he's in contention at a major was the same look we saw from Woodland on Sunday.

He wasn't rattled. He wasn't distracted. Just focused on what he was doing.

"You knew Brooks was going to make a run," Woodland said. "I saw he made birdie on 1. I heard the roars when he made birdie on 3.

"But I just tried to stay within myself. I knew if I played well ... I knew if I shot a couple under, he'd have to do something really, really special."

Woodland thought that by treating Sunday like any other day at any other tournament, "I can put pressure on them instead of them putting pressure on me."

Woodland said executing that 3-wood gave him the confidence to execute the shot that would essentially seal the championship.

A poor tee shot on the par-3 17th left him 30 yards from the hole on the first cut but without a clear path with his putter. So, he decided to chip the ball over the hill and only the slope. It stopped 2-feet from the pin, allowing him to save par.

That par allowed Woodland to play it safe on 18. Except playing it safe meant rolling in a dramatic 30-foot birdie putt to put an exclamation to his round and first major championship at the age of 35.

With the win, Woodland climbed to No. 12 in the World Golf Rankings, up from 25th.

"It all kind of came out of me," Woodland said about draining that long putt on 18. "I never kind of let myself get ahead, just told myself it's never over. And when the last putt went in, it all came out. I was more nervous afterwards than I was at all today. I'm glad it's over with."

tom_dangelo@pbpost.com

@tomdangelo44

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