Mark Fuchs: Inspiration From Gary Woodland’s U.S. Open Win

· July 10, 2019

This letter is courtesy of Mark Fuchs, a member of the Southern Virginia University Board of Trustees

I didn’t know anything about Gary Woodland before he won the U.S. Open Golf Championship this past Father’s Day. I stumbled upon his post-tournament press conference and found it super inspirational. Here are my observations and thoughts:

Gary Woodland at the 2018 U.S. Open

Gary Woodland always knew he would be a professional athlete. He just didn’t know what sport would butter his bread. He was a two-time high school state champion in basketball and received a scholarship to play at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. In Gary’s very first collegiate game, Washburn ranked second in NCAA DII, played the University of Kansas, the top-ranked team in NCAA DI. Gary guarded Kirk Hinrich who would later become a lottery draft pick and play in the NBA for 14 years. After that game, Gary crossed basketball off the list of sports he might play professionally. And after his freshman season, he transferred to KU to play only golf. It was the first time he focused on just one sport. He had a lot of holes in his golf game. He could hit the ball far, but by his own admission, he was inconsistent and his short game was a disaster. Even at the age of 35, after playing for 11 years on the tour and winning the U.S. Open with the second lowest score ever, Gary said that his “game isn’t where it needs to be.” It reminds me of the mantra that, “the best might sometimes be pleased, but they are never satisfied.” Or the old Nike tagline, “there is no finish line.”

In response to a question about playing two sports throughout his teen years and whether he felt he was falling behind many of those who played only golf, he said that he was never discouraged because he learned to compete well playing multiple sports. So when he decided to focus exclusively on golf, he had built a deep reservoir of competitive experiences to draw from. All he then needed to do was “learn how to play golf.” This unwavering belief in his ability to one day play professional golf is pretty amazing considering that at that time his most noteworthy accomplishment on the links was an eighth-place finish at the Kansas high school golf championships his senior year. But he knew how to compete!

Gary’s belief in himself is the definition of “self-efficacy” – a term coined by the Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura and mentioned in Rich Karlgaard’s latest book, Late Bloomers. “Self-efficacy” is similar to the “growth mindset” coined by another Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck. People with a strong sense of “self-efficacy” view challenging problems simply as tasks to be mastered through relentlessly purposeful practice. They may feel a general sense of self-doubt, but they proceed anyway because they are not afraid of failure. They understand that failure is all part of “the process.” Accordingly, they recover more quickly from setbacks and disappointments. As Joe Maddon, the skipper of the Chicago Cubs says, “embrace the suck” – that is, embrace and learn from failure. This hallmark of “self-efficacy” results in a deeper and longer commitment to an endeavor. The tattoo on Stan Wawrinka’s arm nicely sums up all of this: “Ever try? Ever fail? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Gary Woodland has been grinding (and failing) all of his life. And now, at the age of 35, he’s had a shining moment in the sun. It’s not the triumph but the struggle.

Gary also said that he has two hobbies – being a Dad and playing golf. It’s nice when you can make money from at least one of your hobbies! He said that he rarely takes a day off. He’s paranoid (in a healthy way!) that if he takes time off someone else will get ahead of him! He said that his practice has evolved to more quality over quantity. Every shot, every drill, has a deep purpose which builds lots of myelin in his brain! For instance, he said that he’s practiced hitting fairway shots out of sand divots. And during his rounds at the U.S. Open, he had an abnormally high number of balls that rolled into sand divots. But because he practiced those shots over and over, he felt no panic or lament that the golf gods had cursed him. He simply – and confidently – hit that shot.

Gary talked about his relationship with Amy Bockerstette, a girl with Down Syndrome whom he met earlier this year when they played a par three before the Phoenix Open. Before her tee and bunker shots, and before her eight-foot par putt (that she sank like a pro!), she kept telling herself, “I got this!” and “you can do this!” Gary said that Amy’s example of positivity was contagious. He said that his experience with Amy helped him understand that the one thing he can control is his attitude. And if he does that, “good things will happen.” He said that like Amy, he engaged in the same positive self-talk during his final round. He repeated over and over, “you got this!” And just like Amy, he got it! See this video (it made me cry).

Gary also said that he embraced the pressure of the final round. He thought about the adage, “every man dies, but not every man lives — and you’ve lived for this moment!” He focused on his breathing. He focused on “counting” to find a rhythm before putting just like he did before shooting free throws on the hardwood long ago. He even “stopped and smelled the roses,” so to speak and took in the spectacular scenery of Pebble Beach. All of this – and telling himself, “you can do this!” — helped him stay calm. As Billy Jean King said, “pressure is a privilege.” Embrace it! Love the competition! And ask yourself, “where else would you rather be than right here, right now?!”

Gary mentioned that he never thought about winning until he won. It’s almost a cliché, but it’s important to stay in the moment and not get too far over your skis.

Finally, Gary said that he wouldn’t be where he is without his Dad (which was a nice – and maybe obligatory — thing to say on Father’s Day!). He said that his Dad was hard on him. He had to do everything the right way. And that his Dad never let him win. With a smile on his face, he said that he’s looking forward to being hard on his two-year-old son in the future.