4 feet to victory: Woods drains nerve-inducing putt, wins NCAA national title


WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — Gabby Woods moved her Titleist golf ball with a meticulous touch. The ball and her were zeroed in on a small hole just four feet away.

The putt … maybe the biggest putt of her golfing life was lined up and ready.

She stood on the 18th green early Thursday evening at Orange County National – Panther Lake golf course and took a deep breath.

With the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship title in the balance, Woods closed her eyes.

“I never do that,” she said.

But this was a situation unlike any other for Woods, whose list of golf accomplishments is lengthy.

“I’ve never experienced nerves like that before in my life,” said Woods, the Clinton-Massie High School graduate who is completing a stellar career as a golfer at the University of Findlay.

Eyes still closed, Woods reminded herself the 48 inches the ball had to cover was the same 48 inches she faced many times in high school, many times on the practice greens at Snow Hill with swing coach Doug Ledford looking on.

None of those putts, however, had such a lofty crown awaiting Woods. This was for a collegiate national championship, a trophy she came agonizingly close to last season but came up just short.

“I managed to fight the nerves a bit,” she said, recalling the putt that ran true directly into the hole Thursday giving Woods a 54-hole 9-under par score and a one-shot victory over Olivia Mitchell of Dallas Baptist University for the individual national championship.

“Oh … I’ve never felt like that in my life,” she said late Thursday night. “It was crazy.”

Woods opened the national tournament with a 1-under 71 then came back with a 5-under 67 to share the lead after two rounds. Her 6-under par 138 total was a new Findlay 36-hole record.

Program records are good and all, but Woods had the national championship trophy within her reach just like she did last year, only to finish as runnerup. She never takes anything for granted but was eerily confident as the tournament entered its final 18 holes.

“The first day I didn’t hit it off the tee very well,” she said. “I struggled with that but managed to finish under par. If I play as bad as I did and still ended up under par, there’s more out there. I just needed to relax.”

Woods said she talked with Ledford Wednesday night and remained calm Wednesday night into Thursday morning. On the first tee Thursday, however, Woods admitted “bad thoughts” entered her mind. She quickly exorcised those and went about the business of winning a national championship.

Through 17 holes Thursday, Woods had no idea where she stood among other golfers. She prefers it that way.

“I didn’t change my gameplan at all,” said Woods, who approaches every hole the same regardless of the circumstances.

That is, until she prepared to tee off on 18.

“After 17, I needed to know,” she said, then added an assistant coach for Findlay informed her she was tied for the lead. She needed a birdie to win the tournament. The final hole was a par 5 and Woods was eager.

“In my mind, every par 5 I expect to birdie,” she said. “I knew if I hit a good drive, I was going to go for it (the green).”

Her drive was up the left side of the fairway and all that remained was a 7-iron to the green from 175 yards. Her approach was on but a good 35-40 from the hole. Her first putt was safe and she was left with four feet for a victory, a distance she negotiated with an archer’s accuracy and open eyes.

“I’ve celebrated when I could, celebrated with my family … but I don’t have my head completely wrapped around it yet,” she said.

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