Gary Woodland was always a friendly young man, and mature beyond his years.
“He’s the only kid I ever had who, even as a freshman, would hop in the front seat of the van to ride to tournaments,” recalled Lynn Riney, his golf coach at Shawnee Heights High in Topeka, Kan. “We’d just talk golf coming and going.”
Two decades later, Woodland is at ease in a coveted — but unfamiliar — spot: The U.S. Open driver’s seat. He has his first 54-hole lead in a major championship.
Woodland shot a two-under 69 on Saturday to maintain his position atop the leaderboard at 11 under, one stroke ahead of Justin Rose. They will play together in Sunday’s final round.
His 54-hole score (202) is tied with Martin Kaymer (2014) for third-best in U.S. Open history, trailing Jim Furyk (2003) and Rory McIlroy (2011). Kaymer, Furyk and McIlroy all went on to win their respective events.
Rose is dangerous. He was two shots back after three rounds when he won the U.S. Open in 2013 at Merion Golf Club, so he knows how to close on the biggest stage.
Then there’s Brooks Koepka, who’s in a three-way cluster for third but has won the last two U.S. Opens. It has been more than a century since Willie Anderson won three in a row.
But the golfer of the moment is Woodland, 35, a onetime small-college basketball player defined by his toughness and relentless determination.
“I remember Gary as someone who had a lot of pride and was not going to allow an opponent to show us up, no matter what the outcome,” said Craig Cox, his high school basketball coach.
“I remember that one,” he said. “Took a knee, collapsed my trachea, left on a stretcher. That was on a Tuesday and scored 20-some points on Friday, was player of the week. So I remember that. That guy was trying to dunk on me.”
Being of average size didn’t help Woodland’s chances of making it in college basketball. Although he once dreamed of suiting up for the Kansas Jayhawks, he wound up playing one season at Division II Washburn University before transferring to Kansas on a golf scholarship.
He grew up an outstanding basketball and baseball player, so he had to learn to downshift for golf and keep his emotions in check.
“It took me a lot to learn to control adrenaline, and other sports you use adrenaline to your advantage,” he said. “Out here, when I get a little excited, I need to find a way to calm myself back down.”
That said, he had his share of fist-pumping moments on the back nine Saturday, including two spectacular par saves.
The first came on the par-3 12th hole when his tee shot came up short, winding up in the fescue grass above the bunker in front of the green. He had to stand in the sand and take a chop at the ball, which was above his feet. The ball shot out to the right and off the green, making it look as if he’d be lucky to escape with a bogey. Until he drained a 34-foot chip for par, that is.
“I was trying to chip it down close, take a four and move on,” he said. “And the ball came out perfectly executed, chip, and nice to go in.”
Then, on the par-5 14th, his drive landed in the thick rough on the left.
“Really the first time I got out of position off the tee,” he said. “And it was in a horrible spot there, had a horrible lie.”
He tried to blast out of that and wound up in a worse spot in the rough on the other side of the fairway. He chunked it out of that, hit an approach that left him 42 feet from the hole … and made the putt for par.
Now Woodland has a chance for a breakthrough victory. He has won three times on tour and his best finish in the U.S. Open came three years ago, when he tied for 12th.
This isn’t a totally unfamiliar position for Woodland, who was alone with the 36-hole lead at Bellerive Country Club in last year’s PGA Championship before fading down the stretch and finishing in a tie for sixth. Before that, Woodland had gone 27 consecutive majors without a top-10 finish.
“I worked for this my whole life,” he said. “I’ve trained since I started walking … I’ve played sports, I’ve competed. I’ve learned how to win, even if I haven’t done it as much as I’d like. I know what it takes to win. And my game is in a great spot. I’m at a beautiful golf course. I came here to win, and that’s what we’re going out to do tomorrow.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer