Gary Woodland is feeling more at home at this U.S. Open than any of the previous 11 that he has played, even more than the 2019 championship at Pebble Beach where he won his first major title by holding off two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka.
Woodland is from Topeka, Kan., more than a few blocks from the Eastern Seaboard, and he is playing The Country Club for the first time. But he feels an added sense of excitement at this year’s championship, and it has to do with three young players making their respective U.S. Open debuts this week. Three young players from Kansas, to be precise.
Andrew Beckler, Luke Gannon and Sam Stevens know one another well. They are the same age, 25, and competed against one another in high school and in junior golf. They share the distinction not only of each playing in his first U.S. Open but also getting here via advancing through local and final qualifying. And in a further coincidence, both Gannon and Stevens made it through the first stage together at Illini Country Club in Springfield, Ill.
“We’ve all known each other a long time,” said Stevens, whose roots in the game run deep with his father and grandfather having played some tour golf.
“It’s exciting, to be honest with you,” said Woodland, who was lucky enough to play in the same U.S. Open with 1982 champion and fellow Kansan Tom Watson in the 2010 championship at Pebble Beach. “When I came out here, Watson was pretty much done playing, so I didn’t have anyone else, really, from Kansas to share things with experience-wise. For me to come out here and see these young guys, three of them, and me being the old guy, it’s just amazing.”
Beckler he knows the best because he also hails from Topeka. The two have played a couple of practice rounds together this week, including nine holes on Wednesday with 2016 champion Dustin Johnson.
“Our dads are friends and we’ve spent some time together. We’ve gotten to play together here,” said Woodland, 38. “I know Andrew was back in Topeka last week working with young kids [at a clinic], and hopefully it’s the next generation he’s helping, and it’s cool to see.
“I’ve had a chance to be around Tom Watson a little bit,” Woodland added, “and that was special to me, and hopefully I’ve had a little impact on these guys. Kansas isn’t known for a lot of great golfers, but, hopefully, this might fuel a wave of good players from our state.”
“Andrew is kind of the big deal among us,” said Gannon, who was playing in the group behind Beckler, Woodland and Johnson on Wednesday afternoon. “I mean, look, he’s playing with Gary and DJ. Really, we are all having a great time this week. It’s fun to see each other out here in a major together.”
They’ll see plenty of each other the next few days; Beckler and Gannon are in the same group with Chris Naegel of Wildwood, Mo., starting at 8:57 a.m. EDT off the 10th tee in Round 1. Stevens, meanwhile, has a 2:20 p.m. tee time on Thursday starting on the 10th tee.
Gannon had perhaps the most interesting route to The Country Club, deciding to play in final qualifying in San Francisco at The Olympic Club, a hearty longtime U.S. Open site. He has status on PGA Tour Canada, but had gotten an exemption into next week’s Korn Ferry Tour event in Maine and thought about taking a week off. His wife Ellyn talked him into getting on the plane to the West Coast. He shot 6 under par with a pair of 68s to advance.
“I had little to no expectations,” said the Wichita native. “But that’s how it goes in golf. It's probably one of the first tournaments all year that I felt there's zero pressure on me. I just played like, you know, just having fun honestly, which sometimes in pro golf like mini-tours, whatever, that’s hard to do.”
And this week? “Kind of the same thing,” Gannon said. “Few expectations. Just go play and have fun.”
That is Stevens’ plan, too, after getting out of the Springfield, Ohio, final qualifier. The former Oklahoma State University golfer, who plays on the Korn Ferry Tour, has one professional win, that coming at the 2021 Holcim Colombia Classic on PGA Tour Latinoamerica.
“I’ve been playing good, made my last five or six cuts, but this definitely is a different level,” said Stevens, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but grew up in Kansas. “Being here is just a cool deal. I was actually watching the NBA Finals, and I was just thinking about how golf's such a unique sport. Like we can just go and qualify for, like, the biggest event of the year. Anyone can. But I couldn’t qualify for the NBA Finals. And this is kind of like our Finals. It’s that special to be at this place.”
Beckler, who advanced out of the Rockville, Md., final qualifier, said that he has known Stevens since they were 10 years old and that Stevens always was a bit of ahead of him and Gannon in their arc of development. Stevens’ resume includes the 2018 NCAA team title with the Cowboys and contributing to Kansas’ win in the 2010 USGA Men's State Team Championship. When he won the Kansas Amateur in 2015, he joined his father (2010) and grandfather, a two-time winner in 1960-61, as winners of that title.
“Sam always had a little more game, but we’ve closed the gap some,” said Beckler, who played golf at Washburn, the same college where Woodland played one season of college basketball before transferring to the University of Kansas to play golf. That’s another gap Beckler recognizes. “Obviously, Gary is a way better athlete than me.”
Whatever happens this week, the trio already has shared a special moment. It came on Monday when they played nine holes together late in the day when few fans were left on the property, and they just walked stride-for-stride talking a bit and looking around and marveling at the chance to play in their first major at such a revered course.
“We just soaked in the moment,” Beckler said. “It kind of seemed surreal, the three of us out there. It was a little more quiet that time of day. We had a little fun match, too. We didn’t say a whole lot but we didn’t really have to.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.