For Gary Woodland, driving crucial

It wasn't lost on Gary Woodland last month when he was playing in the World Cup that life was far different than it had been a year ago.

While enjoying a swank resort and a pristine golf course and a guaranteed nice payday in China, Woodland thought back to 12 months prior, when he was emerging from the second stage of the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament and still hoping to earn a spot on tour for 2011.

"I was freezing in Dallas and then here I was representing my country a year later at the World Cup," Woodland said. "Things changed."

No doubt.

Woodland was in China along with Matt Kuchar -- where they were the surprising winners of the tournament -- because of a breakthrough season in which he won the Transitions Championship and served notice that his game off the tee is something to be admired.

"I always thought that I could hit it a ways when I was younger and I had another gear," said Tiger Woods. "That's kind of what Gary has, which is kind of fun to watch, because he'll just hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it and then he'll step on one and it's like 'Whoa.'

"He's got another gear that the other guys just don't have. I've talked to Dustin [Johnson] about it; I've talked to Bubba [Watson] about it. They just don't have that extra little gear that he's got, and that's pretty fun to watch."

Woodland, 27, ranked fifth on the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2011, but it's a misleading stat. He doesn't always hit a driver off the tee. He still averaged more than 310 yards per drive, and yet it was in a week when he didn't have to hit so many drivers that he won.

A former college basketball player at Washburn before transferring to Kansas to play golf, Woodland captured his first PGA Tour title in March when he beat Webb Simpson by a stroke.

"The key for me was I was hitting irons and 3-woods and keeping the ball in play," Woodland said. "I've actually struggled on long golf courses because I hit driver and wasn't driving it in play. I played well at Greenbrier, one of the shortest courses on tour. It's all about driving it in play."

And that is why his driving was among several points of emphasis in a brief offseason in advance of his first Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, the season-opening event of the 2012 PGA Tour season.

Although Woodland made 21 of 25 cuts, including his last 14 in a row, and earned more than $3.4 million, he was frustrated by not contending more often.

"I've got to drive the ball better," Woodland said. "When I play well, I drive the ball in play. When I struggle, I don't drive it in play. That's the key, driving it in play. And then the next part [is] I've got to get better with my wedges. I've got to hit it closer. I would say from 140 [yards] in, I've got to get better."

Woodland certainly has plenty of positives from which to build. He was one of 11 players who made the cut in all four majors, and one of just four to place in the top 30 in all four. His best was a tie for 12th at the PGA Championship, but the experience gained was invaluable.

Ranked 52nd in the world, Woodland will get his first cracks at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship and the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral. He's exempt for the Masters again due to his top-30 finish in the FedEx Cup.

Because Kuchar was the highest-ranked American player available for the World Cup, he had the choice of partners, and it didn't take long to pick Woodland.

"Yeah, it was a pretty darned good pick, wasn't it?" Kuchar said. "He's a fantastic player. I don't think there's enough known about him amongst regular golf fans. I think the guys that are out here playing know that he's a tremendous talent and he's going to be a great player and a great player for years to come.

"He was a guy that I knew was going to be a big help and a big asset going over there and playing in the World Cup. I had a couple guys in my head that I was thinking about for potential partners, looked at the course, and the general idea you're looking for with that event is 'Who am I going to have a good time with for six days?' and 'Who do I think gives me a real shot at winning?' as well.

"So there were a couple names, and when I looked at the course setup, Gary Woodland came to the top of the list. This was a guy I knew I was going to have a good time with and a guy I knew was going to give us a real shot at winning the thing."

Given their success, Kuchar and Woodland ought to have caught the eye of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love, who surely could use a good alternate-shot team for the matches later this year at Medinah.

But Woodland first needs to make the team. Or be impressive enough to Love to be one of his four captain's picks.

Woodland will begin 2012 at 15th in the Ryder Cup standings, one spot behind Woods -- and with plenty of people expecting big things throughout the year.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.