Six or seven years ago Harrison Frazar pulled up to Royal Oaks, his home club in Dallas, and received a rude welcome. An employee told him, "You better go down to the range because there's a kid there who hits it farther than you do."
Frazar, now a 15-year PGA Tour veteran, has ranked as high as third in driving distance. He has long enjoyed his standing as Royal Oaks's longest hitter. He strutted to the range and found Gary Woodland, then an undergraduate at Kansas, smacking four-irons for Royal Oaks's head pro, Randy Smith. Woodland wanted to hit a few drivers but was concerned he might reach the players on the teeing ground at the other end of the range. They were 320 yards away, into the wind. "When it's blowing like this, I can only roll it within 10 yards of them," Frazar woofed. "Don't worry about it."
On his first swing Woodland smashed a drive over the heads of the unsuspecting folks off in the distance.
"Well, you were right, Harrison," Smith said. "He doesn't have to worry about them."
The legend of Gary Woodland, 27, has long been told around Texas and the Great Plains. In a game that is increasingly being defined by speed and power, he is an athlete of supreme gifts, a thick-shouldered, fast-twitch, 6'1", 195-pound onetime college basketball player who is only now beginning to harness his jaw-dropping potential. The larger golf world discovered Woodland last year, when as a sophomore on Tour he won the Transitions Championship (needing only 23 putts on Sunday), had 14 other top 25 finishes and launched more than a quarter of his drives at least 320 yards.
"He can be the best player in the world, if that's what he wants," says Frazar. "He simply needs to avoid all the distractions."
There have been plenty of them lately, as Woodland's rise to stardom was complicated by his decision to change agents at the end of 2011, signing with Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods's wingman. One problem: The agent Woodland left behind is Blake Smith, Randy's son. Woodland had hoped to continue working with his longtime coach, but for Randy Smith it was an untenable situation. He ended his professional relationship with Woodland and canceled a trip to Maui for the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Last week Woodland looked lost at the Plantation course, finishing three under, 20 strokes behind winner Steve Stricker. Woodland blamed a scratchy opening 73 on being overly eager to "put all this other stuff behind me. I was a little too pumped up, a little too anxious." He didn't hide his unease about being without a coach. "I don't really understand what I do," Woodland said with typical candor. "Until I get to that point I'm going to need someone to tell me what to do." He has a short list of candidates to be Smith's successor and hopes to formalize an arrangement in the next couple of weeks.
Even as Woodland struggled on the wide-open Plantation course, his legend grew; during the first round, on the severely downhill 663-yard par-5 18th hole, he mauled a drive that traveled 450 yards, leaving only a baby eight-iron in. It is this mind-blowing power that makes Woodland such a tantalizing prospect. At the Chevron World Challenge last month, as Woodland and Steinberg were just beginning their discussions, Woods anointed his soon-to-be stablemate in a rare bit of public gushing. "I always thought that I could hit it a ways when I was younger and I had another gear," Tiger said. "That's what Gary has, which is fun to watch because he'll simply hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it—and then he'll step on one and it's like, Whoa. He has another gear that the other guys don't have. I've talked to Dustin [Johnson] about it; I've talked to Bubba [Watson] about it. They don't have that extra little gear that he has."
Approached last week, Watson didn't exactly concur with Woods's paraphrasing. "There are five or 10 tour pros around the world who could be the longest hitter, depending on the conditions and how they're swinging and feeling at any given time. Some days it might be J.B. Holmes or Dustin Johnson or Robert Garrigus or me, or maybe that guy in Europe, [Alvaro] Quiros. But some days it probably is Gary Woodland. It just depends."