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Gary Woodland dreamed big as a youngster growing up in Topeka, the modest, oh-so-Midwestern capital of Kansas. He dreamed of one day playing his sport on the world's biggest stage. You know how fairy tales go. Through years of hard work and dedication and yadda-yadda-yadda, he made that dream come true.
On Sunday, Woodland won the Transitions Championship, an underrated stop on the Florida swing of the PGA Tour. Not only did the 26-year-old secure a spot on the Tour for the next two years and earn $990,000, he also played his way into his first Masters. Augusta National is unquestionably golf's biggest stage—dogwoods, azaleas, green jackets, the ghost of Bobby Jones and Amen Corner.
But that wasn't Woodland's dream. He was a talented baseball player growing up. He was a shortstop, the position that most stud athletes play. When he was 16, he helped the Liberal Beejays get to the National Baseball Congress World Series in Georgia, where they won a national championship. One of his teammates and best friends was Joey Devine, who now pitches for the Oakland Athletics. "A little team from Kansas went down there and won," Woodland says. "That was awesome."
But playing big league baseball wasn't his dream, either. Woodland was also a high school basketball star. He won a pair of 5A state championships at Shawnee Heights High. The ultimate in this basketball-crazy state is to play for the Kansas Jayhawks. Woodland knew he wasn't good enough to do that, but that wasn't his dream, either. His dream was simply to play in Allen Fieldhouse, the storied arena on the KU campus. So it was that Woodland played guard for Washburn, an NCAA Division II program, when it faced No. 2 Kansas in 2002.
"It was probably the biggest thrill of my life," Woodland says. "Sixteen thousand fans breathing down on you in the place I'd been going to since I was a little kid. That was the biggest dream I ever had, and I accomplished that."
The dream was sweet but not precisely as envisioned. Woodland played 20 minutes and hit one three-point shot. He knows his statistics. No need to ask. "I was 1 for 7 from the field," he says, shaking his head and grinning. Kansas won by 35.
After that game Woodland knew it was time for a new dream. Or maybe a new plan. "I realized that I wasn't going to play in the NBA," he says. "I wanted to play at the highest level; it didn't matter what sport."
Kansas was the only school that recruited Woodland as a golfer, and when he opted for basketball at Washburn, KU golf coach Ross Randall predicted that he'd change his mind after a year and told Woodland that he had a future in golf. Woodland transferred to Kansas in 2003 and got serious about golf.
You know how these fairy tales go. Through years of hard work and dedication and yadda-yadda-yadda, Woodland made his dream come true. He won three college tournaments as a senior, was an honorable mention All-America, won the Kansas Amateur and left a trail of legendary feats behind thanks to a natural ability to boom his driver prodigious distances.
Fast-forward to 2011, past a couple of trips to Q school and a 2009 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder that sidelined him for nine months. Woodland is suddenly part of a new wave of players bidding to become stars, and it's not as if you couldn't see him coming. He lost a playoff to Jhonny Vegas at the Bob Hope Classic and finished fifth and sixth in two tournaments since then. After winning about $200,000 in his first two seasons on Tour, he has banked $1,850,064 in 2011.