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How one hoops game against Kansas made Gary Woodland realize golf was his sport

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

Gary Woodland has always known a thing or two about hitting long shots.

Years before he was one of the PGA Tour's longest drivers, his range on the basketball court started when he crossed half court. Woodland had a jump shot in high school and college that seemingly saw no limits, which led to his coaches essentially giving him a permanent green light.

If Woodland could've pulled up after getting an inbounds pass, he would've, said TJ Finan, a longtime childhood friend and teammate of Woodland.

"There was no range limit," said Craig Cox, Woodland's coach at Shawnee Heights High School, located outside of Topeka, Kansas. "As a coach, you're looking at guys, that, as they get further from the basket, they have to change their shot. But he was so strong in his forearms and his wrists, which I think is contributing to his golf power. His shot looked exactly the same from 5 feet to 35 feet. I never said a word.

"He was one of those first guys that didn't worry about the 3-point line, 'OK, Gary's inside half court, he's in range.'"

Woodland's shot, hard-nosed defense, heady play, cold-bloodedness and toughness led him to a basketball scholarship at Washburn University, a Division II school in his hometown of Topeka. But it took all of one game -- a season-opening exhibition against the Kansas Jayhawks in historic Allen Fieldhouse -- during his freshman season for Woodland to realize that basketball wasn't going to be his future.

That was golf. And it's worked out pretty well for him. In 11 years on the PGA Tour, Woodland has three wins and more than $22.8 million in career earnings. Woodland opens the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play against Eddie Pepperell.

Growing up, Woodland, 34, was a standout basketball and baseball player. He played on a traveling basketball team and also played AAU around the Kansas City area before he reached high school. Whatever court he played on, Woodland "was always one of the better players," Finan said. But as good as Woodland was at basketball, he was just as talented as a shortstop.

From about 9 to 13, Woodland played on a traveling baseball team that Finan described as "pretty darn good." But because high school baseball and golf were both spring sports in Kansas, Woodland couldn't play both for Shawnee Heights, so he chose to play on its golf team and joined a summer baseball team. The last summer he and Finan played baseball together, they were 16 and won nationals in Georgia that year.

Once Woodland got to high school, he began separating himself from his classmates on the court.

He didn't start for Cox as a freshman but saw significant minutes as Shawnee Heights made a deep postseason run.

"That was my plan as he matured through his freshman year," Cox said. "I looked back at his pictures as a freshman, he was such a little boy. He was baby face and skinny. Now you look at him as a linebacker: a big, athletic body."

Woodland started as a sophomore and helped lead a Shawnee Heights team stocked with upperclassmen to the 2000 state championship. The next year, his team lost in the state semifinals. From his sophomore to senior years, Woodland started all 75 games in which he played.

By then, colleges had started to notice the versatile sharp-shooting guard. Woodland was getting interest from mainly smaller Division I schools and Division II schools.

Cox tried to help Woodland. He reached out to some of his college contacts, including Dana Altman, then at Creighton, and pitched the 6-foot-1 Woodland as a guard who could "shoot the lights out." Cox said the response was standard: "Who can he guard? How's he going to be on defense?" But Cox didn't have a good answer. If Woodland was coming out of high school today, Cox believes, with the premium that colleges put on shooters, Woodland would have received more and better offers.

Back then, if Woodland was going to play college basketball, he knew where he wanted it to happen: the University of Kansas.

But if the Jayhawks weren't interested, there was just one school in which Woodland was realistically interested: Washburn University.

He was close to Washburn's program. Some of his friends and coaches growing up played there. He was familiar with it. It was in his hometown. And the program was good. Two years before he arrived, the Ichabods lost in the national championship game.

Woodland committed to Washburn as a junior.

But it was after his college decision was decided that Woodland said he began playing "pretty good" golf in high school. At that point, just one school was recruiting him despite eventually winning three city championships: Kansas.

Then came his senior basketball season.

Woodland was the lone holdover from the state title team two years earlier. A role player on that squad, the team his senior year was his.

"He was the guy," Finan said. "He was the commander in chief, whatever you want to call it."

Shawnee Heights ran the triangle that season, so the offensive workload was distributed widely, but when a play was drawn up in a timeout, it was usually called for Woodland, Finan said.

En route to becoming the school's first -- and only -- all-state selection, Woodland averaged 18 points per game as a senior and, as Finan recalled, "went off" in the state title game, scoring 26 points.

"He was one of those guys that nothing scared him," Finan said.

Woodland went to Washburn as a backup shooting guard with one job: shoot it.

Woodland, former Washburn coach Bob Chipman recalled, had "great" rhythm on his shot with "perfect rotation" and ideal follow-through.

"I mean, he could really shoot it," Chipman said. "When it came out of his hand, it was like, 'Oh, it's going in.' You know it's going in."

That season, Woodland shot 120 3-pointers, making 38, which has left him fifth all-time in school history for freshmen in 3-pointers attempted and fourth in 3s made. In a late-season game against Northwest Missouri, Woodland came off the bench to hit 5-of-6 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 21 points in a win.

However, Woodland was more than a shooter. He understood the game, Chipman said, and was tough as nails.

Twice during Woodland's freshman year, Chipman challenged him to earn his scholarship in practice. Both times Woodland responded. The first time, Chipman asked Woodland if he was ever going to get a rebound. And if he did, the team was going to run. The guard got a rebound, the team ran and everyone was mad at Woodland, Chipman remembered.

The second time, Chipman asked if Woodland was ever going to get a floor burn at least once in practice. That day, Woodland dove on the court and broke a finger on his left hand. To this day, Chipman feels bad about that. Every time Woodland misses a short putt, Chipman blames himself.

But reality began to set in for Woodland during his freshman season, in which he averaged six points per game.

"I realized I was good in the state but these guys on a national level were a little different," Woodland said. "I wasn't quick enough and that was a big deal. I could shoot the heck out of it. I could see. I could handle the basketball but I wasn't quick enough to move defensively.

"Offensively, I was fine. I could get around, I could do stuff, but defensively I wasn't quick enough. I couldn't keep up. That was the biggest thing. And that was at the Division II level. You talk about Division I level. Our first game was at KU and I learned quickly I needed to find something else."

It wasn't easy, but he did.

Now, even as one of the tour's top players, Woodland still says the decision to leave basketball was "very hard." Had he stayed at Washburn, Chipman said Woodland would've ended up starting the next year because of injuries and "probably would have shot it every time."

He had signed with Washburn to play basketball and golf, but in an effort to help him integrate with the basketball team quickly, he didn't play fall golf -- the first time he had consciously stopped playing. By the time the basketball season was over and he had decided to give up the sport, it was April and he hadn't touched a golf club since the start of the school year, a span of about seven months.

"I did miss it," Woodland said. "So, that transition was a little bit easier from the standpoint that I missed it so much. I was dying to get back into it."

Woodland now wonders if he would've transferred had he played golf his freshman year at Washburn, or if he would've transferred at all if he had been required to sit out a year, which he wasn't because he was changing sports.

"A lot of things fell into play that worked out for me," Woodland said.

Woodland had a connection to the Jayhawks' coaches through junior golf in Kansas, but when their recruitment of Woodland began, the late former Jayhawks coach Ross Randall did something he rarely did, Woodland said. Hè„ made an in-house visit to Woodland.

"I was only the second house visit he'd ever done," Woodland said.

Woodland remembered Randall being "very upset" when Woodland decided to play basketball at Washburn, but the coach left a scholarship open for Woodland in the event the golfer changed his mind. Randall told a young Woodland, "I think your future is in golf." He was right. When Woodland decided to pursue golf instead of basketball, he called Randall.

The moment Woodland decided on Kansas, his basketball career was over. Because of NCAA rules, he wasn't allowed to try to walk on to a major sport team because he played a minor sport. Golf was his sport.

"The rest," Woodland said, "is history."