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Gary Woodland's win keeps trend going

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- The reigning No. 1 had no say in this fight, simply a spectator taking it all in. He chose for his perch a comfortable reclining chair in the locker room at Innisbrook, his day long complete, a flight home still hours away.

Martin Kaymer was watching on TV the final round of the Transitions Championship from the comfort of the air-conditioned indoors, knowing that the upstarts battling it out for the tournament title would be facing plenty of heat -- and not just from the sun.

"We'll see who has the most nerves," said Kaymer, who at age 26 has already won eight times on the European Tour, including a major championship. "Those closing holes are tough. It's not easy getting it home here."

It's especially not easy when the stakes are so big, and you've never before done it.

Gary Woodland, 26, was the last man standing Sunday with a 67 on the Copperhead course, holing a clutch 10-footer for par on the 18th green that stood up when Webb Simpson failed to get up and down on the same hole a short time later.

Two more shots back was Scott Stallings, and if you see a theme developing, it's that none of those guys had ever won before on the PGA Tour. In fact, six of the top 10 on the final leaderboard had never won prior to this week. Stallings had made just his second cut of the year.

It's the seventh time in 11 weeks of the PGA Tour season that a tournament winner punched his ticket to the Masters. And Woodland, who lost to Jhonattan Vegas at the Bob Hope Classic, is the third first-time winner this year.

"I think it speaks to the depth of the tour at this point," said Brandt Snedeker, a one-time tour winner who finished fourth. "We've got a lot of young guys who come out of college prepared and ready to play. Not necessarily needing the Nationwide Tour to get ready.

"Guys get out here and they're not scared. They realize that this is going to be their one chance to do it and they give it everything they've got. I think it helps not having to stare down Tiger or Phil or somebody like that in the last round. Still, these guys don't care anymore. They're ready to go ... guys realize that if you want to compete and win out here, you have to play with no fear. Make a lot of birdies."

It's true that Woods and Mickelson were not here. But Justin Rose, a former Ryder Cup player for Europe and two-time winner on the PGA Tour, began the day in the lead. Last week's winner, Nick Watney, was within range. So were a slew of seasoned players.

And no matter the competition, it doesn't make it any easier hitting the shots down the stretch.

Woodland's only par on the back nine came at the 18th, after a bogey at the 16th and then a birdie at the 17th.

For a guy with not a lot of big-time golf experience -- his only previous professional victory came at the High Plains Pro-Am in his native Kansas two years ago -- it was pretty impressive. This was just his 33rd start on the PGA Tour.

"I played a lot of sports growing up," Woodland said. "I played baseball until I was 16. I played basketball in college one year. I've competed a lot at a national level, just not in golf. So out here we've been trying to transition everything I've done in my life to golf.

"I got out here in '09. I wasn't a very good golfer. I was athletic, but I didn't know what I was doing out here. I got hurt, and I had time to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I'm starting to figure that out right now."

Woodland played one year of college basketball at Washburn University before transferring to Kansas to play golf. It was the only school that offered him a golf scholarship.

A few years later, and Woodland is headed to the Masters.

It didn't hurt him Sunday that he had been in contention a few times earlier this year. In addition to the playoff loss to Vegas, he tied for fifth in Phoenix and was tied for sixth two weeks ago at the Honda Classic.

Coming into this year, Woodland's best finish was a tie for 21st last year at the John Deere Classic, although a left shoulder injury that required surgery hampered him for the past two years.

And yet Kaymer -- who will be No. 1 for a fourth consecutive week after finishing tied for 20th -- proved prophetic as the contenders started to feel the stress of a Sunday back nine with a two-year exemption and -- for those not qualified -- a Masters spot at stake.

Stallings' tee shot at the par-4 16th found the water; Brendon de Jonge, who was also in contention and tied for fifth, missed a short birdie putt at the 14th. Simpson, who was the steadiest on the back nine, bogeyed the 10th and 18th holes to lose by one.

And then there was the lone par on the back nine by Woodland.

A long hitter who admitted that he has had to dial back the aggression on the course, Woodland hit a 2-iron off the 18th tee and had just 148 yards left to the pin. Despite playing uphill, Woodland hit a pitching wedge -- and still knocked it over the green, leaving him a treacherous putt from the fringe that ran 10 feet past.

He made it, and avoided a tie when Simpson, a third-year tour player, could not do the same.

"It speaks to the strength of the tour," said Watney, who won last week at Doral but failed to keep up his year-long streak of top-10s by finishing tied for 13th. "I think it's great for golf. I'm sure it's going to continue. It's fun to see. I don't want to say it's a changing of the guard, but maybe it's the start of that."

At the very least, it is the continuation of a 2011 trend, players coming from everywhere and out of nowhere to win.

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