Ex-Charger Danny Woodhead takes swing at golf's U.S. Open - bdsthanhhoavn.com

Ex-Charger Danny Woodhead takes swing at golf’s U.S. Open

The U.S. Golf Association sends notifications on official letterhead to players who advance through local qualifying for the U.S. Open, informing them where they have been assigned for the 36-hole final stage. Former Chargers running back Danny Woodhead got his and posted it on Twitter with a two-word message:

Kinda cool.

That’s right. He’s one step from playing in the 122nd U.S. Open later this month at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

“I don’t know what to compare this to, because this is not my profession,” Woodhead, who went from a 5-foot-8 (maybe) undrafted running back from Division II Chadron State in Nebraska to Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, said recently on a podcast he hosts with former Chargers teammate Matt Slauson. “I’m not supposed to be good at (golf).

“It’s just funny. People say, ‘Oh, it’s really cool you qualified for sectionals, but it’s different up there.’ It’s like, sure, yeah, but I’m not getting hit by 300-pound D-tackles. You think I’m scared of this? I’m not. It’s not going to intimidate me.”

And so Woodhead’s improbable golf journey continues Monday at Springfield Country Club in Ohio, with 78 pros and amateurs battling for an expected seven spots in Brookline. Less than five years ago, he was still in the NFL with a broken swing (and body) and an 8 handicap. Now it’s been as low as plus-3.4, meaning he’s better than scratch (zero) and regularly shoots under par.

“The guy,” says Rick Johnson, his golf coach from San Diego, “is obsessed.”

Woodhead, now 37, put it like this on his “Out of Nowhere” podcast: “I think a decent amount of people know this is what I love doing. It’s my passion. Football is not here anymore, and this has kind of taken that spot of football as far as the competitive nature that I have. … I’m preparing for this like I’m preparing for a Super Bowl.”

Woodhead had never taken a lesson when he met Johnson in 2014 during a round at Country Club of Rancho Bernardo with Chargers teammate Eric Weddle. The coaches often excused Woodhead from film study because he knew it so well, and he regularly spent the afternoons on area courses until his wife, thinking he was at practice, busted him with a golf glove as evidence.

He and Johnson became friends, and Johnson offered basic tweaks to his game while noting if he ever wanted to get serious, he’d have to wait until after retirement. That was a polite way of saying his swing didn’t need a few splashes of fresh paint or a kitchen remodel, but a teardown to the studs.

“When he was an active player, all he talked about was golf post-football,” Johnson says. “I told him we had to look at it one of two ways. You can be a high-level rec tournament player, and we can jump right into this and get going. Or you can delay that for a year or two, completely redo your motor patterns and have a great 20-year run after that.

“His attention to detail is incredible — I mean, his whole (football) career he never had one penalty. His work ethic and his attitude are great. He’s so positive. He’s a great athlete. And he has the two things you need to play golf at this level: money and time.”

From left: Matt Slauson, Danny Woodhead, Norman Xiong and Rick Johnson at a round in Las Vegas.

From left: Matt Slauson, Danny Woodhead, Norman Xiong and Rick Johnson at a round in Las Vegas.

(Photo courtesy Rick Johnson)

After four years with the Chargers, Woodhead spent his final NFL season with the Baltimore Ravens in 2017. By 2018, he was embarking on a two-year swing reconstruction project, during which Johnson admits “he sucked.”

Johnson largely left alone Woodhead’s short game, which relies on superior hand-eye coordination and an unorthodox putting stroke that somehow just works, getting the ball on line with the right pace.

“It’s one of those things where, to use my cheesy expression, is the juice worth the squeeze?” says Johnson, who currently teaches at Del Mar Country Club and has worked with dozens of college players and pros. “But the full swing, it was like, ‘Bro, we’ve got some stuff to do.’ I get a lot of students who come in and say, ‘I want to change my golf swing.’ And then they don’t hit a shot they like want and they start freaking out. It’s going to suck for a while, especially for that big of a change and his change was pretty substantial.

“But give him credit. He stuck with it.”

Woodhead went from a lateral swing — sway to the right, sway to the left, flip the hands to square the club face, slap at the ball and hope — to a fully rotational, grounded motion with quiet hands that better utilizes his compact, powerful body and explosive hips, or what Johnson calls creating a kinetic sequence. He went from carrying drives 240 or 250 yards to the low 300s.

Woodhead will come to San Diego from his home in Nebraska for a few days of intensive instruction during the winter, or Johnson will go to Omaha during the summer, or they’ll meet in Las Vegas. But mostly, they communicate virtually. Woodhead will call, or send video clips of his swing, or FaceTime Johnson while he’s at the range.

How often? How obsessed?

“Um, daily,” Johnson says, laughing. “Sometimes multiple times a day.”

The other day, Johnson got a video of a barefoot Woodhead in a tank top and shorts swinging a 3-wood off the carpet in his daughter’s playroom.

The new swing finally coalesced in 2020, and Woodhead began entering more serious amateur events as his handicap plummeted. Tony Romo, Stephen Curry and other pro athletes have become competent golfers; almost none has had a handicap go as low as Woodhead.

“His Masters,” according to Johnson, was the annual Nebraska Match Play Championship, and his initial goal was to advance from stroke play qualifying to the round of the 32. Last summer, he reached the semifinals. He also qualified for the 2021 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship in Washington state.

The goalposts have shifted now. He shot even-par 71 at Omaha Country Club, his home course, with a twisting birdie putt at 17 to finish third among 85 entrants and earn of one five spots in final qualifying. Soon a notification on USGA letterhead was arriving with his assignment to Springfield on Monday.

Kinda cool.

On Friday he posted a video from the 11-hour road trip to Ohio with a couple buddies and his brother Joel, who will caddie for him Monday. They had just crossed into Illinois.

“I remember saying, ‘I’m going to try to get really good,’ ” Woodhead recounts on his podcast. “And people would be like, ‘Hey, I’m just going to warn you, now: The lower you get, it’s going to be harder to keep going down. If you get to a 2 (handicap), getting those last two strokes to a scratch, you’re really going to have to grind. And if you get to the pluses, to keep it there? I don’t know.’

“Maybe they didn’t mean it as that, but every time someone said something like that, I’d take it as a slight. Really? Like, so, you don’t think I’ll be able to keep it there? It’s funny, because that’s kind of like my whole life.”

The USGA produced a short video with Woodhead to promote the U.S. Open and its unique qualifying format that gives everyman a shot, a dream.

In it, the 5-8 running back from Div. II Chadron State who had a 10-year NFL career and won a Super Bowl ring says: “I’m going to be known as Danny Woodhead, the football player. But it will be cool if they say: ‘You remember Danny Woodhead, the football player? He’s kinda nails at golf.’ ”

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