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Inside Danny Woodhead’s improbable run toward the U.S. Open

NFL

Inside Danny Woodhead’s improbable run toward the U.S. Open

New England’s love affair with Danny Woodhead started early and seemed to grow exponentially with every game he played for the Patriots.

It was hard not to fall for the pint-sized running back, who fell into the Patriots’ laps after being released by the Jets one game into the 2010 season.

Woodhead was the little engine that could, a 5-foot-8 dynamo coming out of Division II Chadron State in his native Nebraska, defying long odds to make it to the NFL.

And now, a decade after his run with the Patriots ended, Woodhead is once again making the improbable come true.

After advancing in his local qualifier in Omaha, Woodhead is a step away from qualifying for the US Open, which is being played at The Country Club in Brookline from June 16-19.

If he makes it through a 36-hole final qualifier on June 6 at Springfield (Ohio) Country Club, Woodhead will return to New England, only this time, as a burgeoning golfer.

Speaking with the Herald last week, Woodhead said he even has to pinch himself every so often when he thinks about how far he’s come in a different sport, and what might lie ahead.

“Would it be special? Oh my gosh, it would be special to somehow qualify. Not a lot of people get to do stuff like this, ”he said. “And for (the US Open) to be in Brookline? That’s the craziest thing about it. That’s where everything started for me in my career. Yeah, sure, I was with the Jets, but (New England) is really where it all started. ”

The legend of Woodhead as cult hero began with him being greeted by Bill Belichick in the Patriots locker room shortly after being cut by the Jets, being handed the playbook, and in turn, having to take a crash course learning New England’s complex offense in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

Almost on cue, Woodhead scored a touchdown in his first game, a 22-yard scamper off a draw play, and ultimately developed into a valuable and trusted weapon for Tom Brady and a fan favorite by extension.

“It was a wild, wild ride that week. It was a lot of fun, ”said Woodhead. “I was embraced so ridiculously by the New England community. And, it’s funny, in the grand scheme of things, I only played there three years, but everyone there treated me so well. And the fans were so amazing to me. I have a huge place in my heart for New England. ”

Well, Patriots fans might once again have the chance to reconnect with one of their favorite alums and cheer him on, only in a much different venue than Gillette Stadium, and in a completely different sport.

From a hobby to getting serious

Woodhead had played golf mostly as a hobby during his football years, but took it up more seriously after retiring in 2017. It was just something he wanted to try in earnest, and see where it took him.

Five years later, he’s on the verge of saddling up next to Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Spieth, et al in Brookline, at one of the oldest and most storied country clubs in the United States.

“I love the game. So It’s just something I went after, and I’ve been trying to get better, have fun with it, and compete in events, ”he said. “You have to have a competitive nature when you’re in the NFL, and the next thing you know, you retire, and you do not have any competition.

“So I said, well, I’ll have some fun with this. That’s how it started. ”

The more he played, the better he got. At this stage, Woodhead is better than a scratch golfer, so anything is possible in his mind.

Last year, the 37-year-old qualified for the US Amateur Four-Ball at Chambers Bay, so he’s no fluke.

And earlier this month, in his first attempt to qualify for the US Open, he carded an even-par 71 at Omaha Country Club, earning one of the site’s five Final Qualifying berths.

Talk about having a competitive nature, Woodhead battled throughout the round, overcoming four bogeys with as many birdies in order to advance and give himself a shot at landing in Brookline next month.

“He’s got some game, and he’s really working on it,” said Dominick Mitchum, the head pro at Omaha Country Club. “I would not be surprised to see him make it to the next level.”

Mitchum raved about the huge following Woodhead has in Omaha. Apparently, Woodhead’s quest to earn a spot in the US Open has really captured the masses.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s not only the talk of the club, but of Omaha, for sure, ”said Mitchum. “He’s a small-town, western Nebraska boy. When he made it to the NFL, everyone knew who he was. Even when he was in college, everyone knew. He’s always been kind of a big deal in Nebraska. People love and respect Danny Woodhead. ”

He was a big deal in New England, too. Fans grew to love his fire and toughness, along with his competitiveness and ability to make big plays.

Hit inside the locker room, too

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that many former Patriots are following Woodhead’s golf journey. Shane Vereen, who was in the running backs room with Woodhead during his Patriot days, is not necessarily surprised about his former teammate’s promising career change.

“He always had a great work ethic, and focus,” said Vereen. “To me, he always seemed like an athlete who could do everything well, and just decided to choose football.

“Now, he’s on to golf. That’s really cool. But I’d say I’m more impressed, than surprised (at his success). ”

Vereen was one of a slew of former teammates – Julian Edelman and Brian Hoyer among the others – who texted Woodhead in recent weeks to congratulate him on making it this far, and cheer him on down the road.

“It’s just cool that the guys pay attention to it,” Woodhead said when asked about former teammates reaching out. “It’s just a cool deal, the whole thing all around is pretty neat.”

Vereen said it was not unusual for “Woody” to head out to play golf in his spare time away from football, with other teammates joining him. Vereen even hit the links once with Woodhead, enjoying a round.

Asked if Woodhead took his money, Vereen laughed, claiming there were no stakes attached to their match.

“I was just getting started back then,” said Vereen. “He was helping me more than anything.”

During his NFL career, Woodhead amassed 2,238 rushing yards and 2,698 receiving yards to go along with 32 touchdowns. As a Patriot, he rushed for 1,199 yards with 10 rushing touchdowns, and four receiving TDs.

After his three-year stint in New England, he signed with the Chargers, where he made some more noise alongside Philip Rivers as a pass-catching change-of-pace back in San Diego.

The golf bug, however, still tugged at him late in his career and eventually drove him to take it up full time once he was done playing.

Working on his ‘sickness’

Woodhead jokingly called his addiction to golf “a sickness, that’s what it is.”

It’s also the ticket to his next great adventure.

To hone his skills, Woodhead has been working with Rick Johnson, a golf instructor at Del Mar Country Club in Rancho Sante Fe, California. The two met when Woodhead was with the Chargers.

With Woodhead’s home base in Nebraska – he’s a member at Omaha Country Club – they mostly connect virtually or via FaceTime.

Mitchum said Woodhead, who is married with four children, shows up regularly at OCC but takes time off on the weekends to spend with his family.

“He’s here all the time, but now, you see him on the range a little more than you used to,” said Mitchum. “He was never a range rat. He’d practice, but he was more of a go-play golf kind of guy. ”

So how did Woodhead go from being your garden variety hacker to being on the verge of joining golfing greats at a major?

Johnson explained.

While Woodhead had a decent short game when they met, his golf swing was nothing to brag about. So Johnson went to work fixing it once Woodhead officially retired.

He basically “modernized” Woodhead’s swing utilizing all the modern pivots getting through the ball and PGA launch angles.

It took about a year and a half to two years before the swing was locked in.

“He’d call me 10 times a day,” Johnson said. “He’d never stop until it was perfect.”

Johnson said with his old swing, Woodhead could carry roughly 240 yards, 250 if he crushed it.

Now? He carries it 320-330 yards, which allows him to be competitive with just about anyone.

“Once he changed golf swings, it was like, ‘Game On,'” Johnson said. “Now, he hits the ball like a Tour player.”

With the new swing, Woodhead went from shooting in the high 70s, low 80s, to regularly breaking par.

Johnson said the former Patriot checks off every important box right now in terms of getting over the next hurdle to the Open. For starters, he has the length off the tee, Second, the moment certainly will not be too big for him having competed in a Super Bowl with the Patriots, and scored a touchdown in the championship game.

It’s also doubtful that he’ll be intimidated by the competition.

“So would I be surprised if he qualified? Zero percent, ”said Johnson. “Would I be impressed? Yes. I mean, it’s so ridiculous when you think about it on paper. But he’s got a punter’s chance. ”

It’s not uncommon for football players to turn into decent golfers. Indy’s Matt Ryan is a 2 handicap. Former Cowboy Tony Romo is a plus-1.

Then there’s Brady, who has a handicap of 8.1. Aaron Rodgers, his partner in the upcoming golf challenge against Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, is listed as a 4.6 handicap by the Wisconsin State Golf Association.

That foursome will compete in Capital One’s The Match, a 12-hole exhibition on June 1 in Las Vegas.

Woodhead is actually better than all of them. Naturally, he could not help but engage in a little friendly trash talk aimed at No. 12, who has not exactly lit it up in the celebrity events.

Cracked the former Patriot: “Maybe Tom needs to pick his partners more wisely.”

Continues to surprise

Even though the notion of athletes getting into golf after retirement isn’t exactly novel, what Woodhead is doing is still pretty mind-blowing.

The kid who hails from North Platte, Nebraska, which is not exactly known as a breeding ground for professional athletes, is a few putts away from making it to one of the biggest stages in golf.

If being a success in the NFL was considered a long shot, he’s now poised to turn heads in a completely different arena.

“I’m a small kid from small-town Nebraska. I feel like I’m just on this adventure. It’s even crazier with this golf deal, ”said Woodhead. “I feel so fortunate, so blessed that I’ve been given gifts and allowed to do different things athletically that I really want to do and it’s been an unbelievable experience.”

Naturally, it would be disappointing if Woodhead fell short, and did not make it through the sectional for that fairytale trip back to New England.

But he’s not thinking that way. Right now, his focus is on improving. The rest will take care of itself.

“I love the game, as long as I continue to be passionate about it, I think I can get better. And that’s really the main goal, ”he said. “If you ever want to qualify for anything, you have to keep getting better. That’s really my focus. ”

Last week, Woodhead sent out an amusing tweet wondering if Bill Belichick would be his caddy in the upcoming sectionals, because he knew his former head coach would come well-prepared for the job.

“I do not know why. I thought maybe Bill could be my caddy, ”Woodhead said of his former head coach with a laugh,“ but I think he has other things to do. So my little brother Joel is on the bag. That works, too. ”

As much as Woodhead loved playing football, he said there’s just something about golf that gripped him like no other sport.

“I do not know if there was anything in football that’s as exhilarating as this, because I’m not supposed to do this,” he said. “And that’s what’s fun. That’s what makes it crazy. And I’m having a ball doing it. ”

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