LA QUINTA, Calif. — Gary Woodland played basketball for a season at Division II Washburn University, and the 6-foot guard still describes a 30-point loss to his beloved Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse as the biggest thrill of his life.
If he keeps hitting his shots at the Bob Hope Classic this weekend, Woodland might have an even bigger achievement in his backup athletic career.
Woodland shot an 8-under 64 on Friday to join Jhonattan Vegas in the lead after three rounds in the 90-hole tournament on four Palm Springs-area courses.
Woodland made five straight birdies on the front nine at the Nicklaus Private course, with only a missed 10-foot putt keeping him from stringing together seven in a row. He added three birdies on the back nine to claim his first lead after any round in 28 PGA Tour events while putting up the best 54-hole score of his career.
Not bad for a guy who didn't get serious about golf until putting his hoop dreams to rest.
"I learned how to play the game over the last year and a half," Woodland said. "I've got great people around me, great people mentoring me, and I'm starting to get there. I'm not anywhere close to where I want to be, but I'm on that road right now."
After a year at Washburn, the Kansas native transferred to KU in 2003 to get serious about golf. But as a multisport athlete growing up, he embraced the grip-it-and-rip-it school of golf until learning how to harness his athleticism on tour.
"There's a lot of guys out here that know how to play this game," Woodland said. "I could probably beat them on the basketball court, but out here, for a year and a half, I was getting my butt kicked. ... There's so much up-and-down in other sports. You're never going to win all the time, so I learned how to play through adversity."
Woodland still hasn't fully recovered from surgery during his rookie season in August 2009 to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, a product of cumulative wear dating to his basketball days. He used cortisone to keep playing through the pain until his doctors "told me I couldn't have it any more."
He still doesn't have the strength he remembers, but he's no longer playing in pain — and he has more than enough oomph to overpower the shorter courses at the Hope Classic.
Vegas also maintained his steady play in his fifth PGA Tour event with a 67 — the first bogey-free round of his career — on the Silver Rock course, keeping a share of the lead for the second straight day.
Woodland and Vegas are the same age (26) with the same Nationwide Tour background, and they have similarly ferocious power off the tee. They're among the longest hitters in the Hope field, yet Woodland barely touched his driver on the friendly Nicklaus course while carding the best round of his career in relation to par.
Australia's Greg Chalmers (65) was a stroke back at 17-under 199, while Scotland's Martin Laird was 16 under after a bogey-free 64. Sixteen players were within five shots of the lead, including Matt Kuchar (13 under after a 67) and second-round co-leader Boo Weekley, also 13 under after a 72 at Silver Rock.
Although Vegas is still 36 holes away from ultimate success in this endurance-testing tournament, the rookie's strong start is attracting attention back home in Venezuela, where golf gets little attention and President Hugo Chavez decries the sport as a pastime of the rich.
"Everybody has been waiting for this for a long time," said Vegas, the first Venezuelan to earn a PGA Tour card. "Even the media, they're really interested in showing the results. I've got a lot of friends there that love golf and that support me, and I've heard a lot from them."
With only a missed 4-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole separating him from sole possession of the lead, Vegas clearly isn't feeling the pressure of leading a PGA Tour event. He hit 14 of 14 fairways on Friday while wearing all-white Nike duds.
Although his putting still isn't stellar, he isn't losing sleep over it.
"If there's something that I do well, it's sleep," the 26-year-old Vegas said. "Leading a golf tournament is not going to cut into my sleep, but it's always fun."
Woodland, Vegas and Chalmers all are hoping for their first PGA Tour victory on these generous courses that just keep on giving to the largely star-free field.
Justin Leonard, the 2005 Hope champion, made six straight birdies while shooting a 64 on the Nicklaus Private course to get back in contention at 12 under. Jesper Parnevik made five consecutive birdies on the Palmer course, matching the best streak of his lengthy career. He was 8 under after a 65.
David Duval was six shots back in a pack at 12 under after shooting a 69 with playing partners Julius Erving and George Gervin. On Saturday, Duval will play the Palmer course, where he famously his punctuated his 59 in 1999 with an eagle on the final hole to win the Hope by one stroke.