After holding on to the U.S. Open Championship trophy longer than any other player who’s not won back-to-back titles, Gary Woodland is ready to defend his title.


But when Woodland steps to the first tee Thursday at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., this week, he admits it won’t necessarily have the feel of a title defense. Instead, the Topeka native insists it will feel quite a bit like a year ago, before his major breakthrough at Pebble Beach.


"With COVID and everything, a lot of my obligations I would normally have as defending champion I don’t have," said Woodland, who ended Brooks Koepka’s two-year U.S. Open reign a year ago at Pebble Beach, holding him off by three shots with his 13-under 271. "With no fans, it will definitely be different and I won’t have my family there with me, either. I’ve gotten most of the media stuff out of the way and the dinners and stuff that I would typically have were canceled.


"It will strictly be golf for me, which is how it was last year and that’s how you like it to be during a major championship."


Woodland will tee off at 12:05 p.m. Thursday in a group that also includes reigning British Open champion Shane Lowry and Andy Ogletree, the 2019 U.S. Amateur champion.


The course ahead of him is one Woodland said is vastly different than the one he won on a year ago. In his march to his first major championship at Pebble Beach, Woodland fired a second-round 65 that tied the Open record for low round at Pebble Beach along with Tiger Woods (2000) and Justin Rose (2019), and his 36-hole total of 9-under 133 broke Woods’ mark of 134 at Pebble.


Those kind of red numbers won’t be found at Winged Foot. When the Open last was played on the legendary course in 2006, Geoff Ogilvy won the championship with a 5-over 285. In 1974, Hale Irwin’s winning score was 7 over and only once in the five previous times the course hosted the Open has the winning score been under par.


That makes for an entirely different challenge for Woodland and his colleagues this year.


"It’s a big-boy golf course," Woodland said. "There’s a premium on driving the golf ball there. Pebble was more iron play, positioning yourself off the tee box. Winged Foot is get out there as far as you can and you’d better be in the fairway because the rough will be brutal. It’s a demanding golf course and I would imagine if you shoot even par, you’d have a chance to win the tournament.


"I enjoy that test more than I enjoy a birdie-fest. . ... Going in knowing that par is a good score, I think sometimes I’m pretty good at making pars. My game is set up for hard golf courses and this is one of the best and hardest golf courses in America. It will be everything we want in a test."


In particular, it will challenge a club that’s always been one of Woodland’s biggest weapons but has faltered of late — his driver.


When PGA Tour play was suspended in March, Woodland ranked No. 1 in total driving. That helped him to a torrid start where he posted five top 10s and another top 12 showing.


After the break, however, Woodland battled inconsistency with the club and finished the season ranked 23rd in total driving. The results reflect the struggles, as well, with Woodland only posting two top 10s since the June return.


"It’s been horrible," Woodland said of his driver. "Obviously I changed the body during the break with my weight (losing 20 pounds) and my speed got off. Plus, I’ve been battling some nagging injuries. ... But length with be an advantage this week, which sets up well for me. I’ve cleaned up some things and I’ve cleared some things up off the course and made sure I’m in the best mental frame I can be in going into this tournament."


From an equipment standpoint, Woodland said he’s gone to a new shaft for his driver and irons which allows for a higher ball flight. From a physical standpoint, he spent the past two weeks working with his personal training team to rehabilitate a recurring left hip injury that flared up in recent weeks.


In fact, Woodland said his doctors encouraged him to skip the FedEx Cup Playoffs to allow his body to rest leading into the Open. He played the first two events, missing the cut at the Northern Trust and finishing tied for 33rd at the BMW Championship, missing the Tour Championship.


"I overdid it a couple weeks before the playoffs and battled through it during the playoffs," he said. "It’s hard not to play in the playoffs. You never like missing the Tour Championship and I pride myself on being there — I’ve been there seven of the last eight years — so not being there was frustrating. But not being there, that’s what my body needed and was a blessing in disguise. I needed two weeks off and some rest."


As the Open has drawn closer and closer, Woodland said the memories of his win a year ago have become more and more prevalent. In addition to recalling the exultation in winning his first major, however, remembering the mentality that got him there could hold the key to a successful title defense this week.


While Woodland showed off every aspect of his game at Pebble Beach, from stellar wedge shots to clutch putts, he wasn’t mistake-free — even though his scorecard only showed four bogeys for the week.


But whenever Woodland found the rare trouble he did a year ago, he usually followed it up with something remarkable.


Knowing there will be plenty of moments of adversity this week, Woodland will have to recapture some of that magic.


"The big difference for me now as to where it was in the past is I know I don’t have to be perfect to win," he said. "Going into major championships in the past, I really put pressure on myself to be perfect. I don’t think I have to do that. I know I can compete and win if I don’t have my best stuff. That’s a huge relief.


"I feel as free now as I’ve ever been from a mental standpoint. To be honest, I feel good about it."