Macon native, ex-Bulldog wins in Houston with 10 birdies in final round 65
Going back to his days on the U. of Georgia golf team, Russell Henley has been known as a somewhat streaky putter who wins most of the tournaments he contends in when he’s rolling putts in from everywhere.
Henley won eight college tournaments during his career in Athens, as well as back-to-back Georgia Amateur Championships and a Web.com event on the UGA course his senior season. He won twice more during his lone full season on the Web.com Tour in a 3-week span thanks to some phenomenal clutch putting, and he began his PGA Tour career with a bang, winning his first event in Hawaii with five birdies on his final five holes on Sunday.
A second victory followed a year later in the Honda Classic when Henley took down Rory McIlroy and two others in a playoff. But after 15 wins at various levels from 2008-14, Henley was winless for more than three years following his playoff victory in the Honda.
Henley ended his winless streak in impressive fashion in the Houston Open, staging a scintillating comeback fueled by another spectacular performance on the speedy, rolling greens at the GC of Houston.
With 10 birdies in a final round 65, Henley erased a 4-stroke deficit after 54 holes to earn a last-minute invitation to the Masters, a serious priority for the Macon native. His torrid birdie finish actually began late in the third round, as he birdied the difficult 17th and 18th holes, giving him 12 birdies over the final 20 holes after trailing by seven with 21 holes to play.
For the week, Henley carded 27 birdies, many of them coming from outside 20 feet, as he challenged the PGA Tour record for length of putts holed in a tournament. He shot 20-under 268, going from four behind after 54 holes to four ahead before a cautious bogey on the perilous finishing hole at GC of Houston.
When told he made 10 birdies in the final round, Henley responded somewhat incredulously.
“I made 10 birdies today? Wow.”
A 30-footer on the 17th late in the third round started Henley’s furious finish, and he pulled even with leader Sung Kang thanks to five birdies on the first eight holes of the final round. A bad break on his tee shot on the par-3 ninth that resulted in an extremely difficult lie in a greenside bunker led to a double bogey, dropping him one behind Kang.
But Henley quickly regained a tie for the lead with a 14-footer for birdie on the 10th, and he broke away from Kang with three straight birdies at 13, 14 and 15 to take the lead by three. The birdies at 13 and 15, both par 5s, came after delicate pitch shots to three feet, but the key hole in the stretch was the 14th, where he holed a 36-footer on the lengthy par 3.
Kang looked like he might cut Henley’s lead to one at the 16th, but Henley holed a par putt of 6 ½ feet and Kang missed badly from four feet for birdie. A 15-footer at the 17th boosted Henley’s lead to four before the meaningless bogey on the closing hole.
Henley has taken a liking to the GC of Houston, which may have hosted the event for the final time. Shell, the tournament’s title sponsor since 1992, will not return in that role next year, and there is a political push on a potential new title sponsor to move the tournament inside Houston’s city limits.
That would not be viewed favorably by Henley, who tied for seventh in the tournament in 2014, was fourth in ’15 and T5 last year. He is 53-under the last four years at GC of Houston.
“I feel like I just manage the course well,” Henley said after his victory. “I know where to miss it and I feel comfortable. I feel like there’s a lot of room for me to hit the ball coming into the greens.”
Henley is also impressed with the conditioning of the course, which rivals that at Augusta National, where he will be playing this week for the fourth time in his five-year PGA Tour career.
“It’s one of the best manicured courses on tour,” he said of the GC of Houston. “It’s so green. It’s perfect in every spot. Very consistent throughout and the greens have always been just spectacular.”
Henley will quickly turn his thoughts to the Masters, where he has played respectably in his brief history at Augusta National.
In his first tournament round in 2013, Henley matched par with a 72, but played poorly the next day and missed the cut. He returned the next year and tied for 31st after being among the top 20 midway through the tournament at 1-under 143. He moved up to 21st in 2015 at 3-under 285 after an opening 68, but that finish was not high enough for a 2016 invite, and he was in danger of missing the Masters for a second straight year prior to his win in Houston.
The 2016 season was the least successful one of Henley’s PGA Tour career. He fell to 87th in the FedExCup standings after placing 44, 19 and 63 his first three seasons. His finishes in 2013 and ’14 were boosted by his victories, with Henley missing 12 of 29 cuts in an inconsistent 2014 campaign that included a runner-up finish in the Playoffs event in Boston to get him into the Tour Championship at East Lake for the first time.
Although he dropped 44 spots in the standings, Henley enjoyed a more consistent showing in 2015 with 11 top-25s. He lost another 24 spots in the standings in 2016, missing 12 of 25 cuts with just two top 10s after a decent start in the Fall.
“Last year was a little bit of a struggle for me,” Henley observed. “As a competitor and golfer, you’re always going to be harder on yourself than everybody else is, and I just didn’t know what happened. A year later I’m holding up a trophy here. It’s pretty special.
“I wasn’t expecting to go back to Augusta. I was planning on not going, but I was going to try my best to win. The fact I get to go back is pretty cool and I’m excited. It really hasn’t sunk in yet, though.”
Henley admitted he “started thinking about Augusta, probably on 15 or 16. I knew that anything could happen, but I couldn’t help but think about it. It excited me. “
After his win, Henley reflected a bit on how his professional golf career has turned out so far.
“If I was a senior in college and you said, ‘Hey Russ, if you could say the next five years you’re going to play golf on the PGA Tour and play in four Masters, would you take that? And you win three times, would you take that in?’
“I would say “Sign me up.’ I’m very thankful. It’s very tough to get in the Masters.”
Henley was already off to a solid start in 2017 after making an equipment change following the departure of Nike from the club and ball manufacturing business.
“I feel like I’ve had a really consistent season so far. I missed my first cut after making the change to Titleist and just wasn’t really quite dialed in and comfortable with it yet. As the Fall went on, I got better and better with it, and this year I feel like I’m starting to get really comfortable with all the stuff and I feel like I’ve improved my game a lot.
“I just think the consistent play I’ve had has given me confidence. I’ve made a lot of cuts and some top 25s. Although I haven’t been close to the lead, I feel like my game has been there and it just kind of happened this week.”
With the win, Henley moved up to 61 from 117 in the World Golf Rankings and from 52 to 11 in the FedExCup standings. If he moves into the top 60 in the OWGR shortly before the U.S. Open, he will be exempt from qualifying.
Henley is one of five Georgians in the top 20 of the FedExCup standings, with former UGA teammate Hudson Swafford 13th after finishing sixth in Houston. Swafford comes into his first Masters off a win earlier this year in LaQuinta, Calif., and back-to-back tops 10s in his last two starts.
Augusta native Charles Howell is 15th and is the highest ranked player in the world (63) not in the Masters. Also not qualifying for Augusta is Luke List, who is 17th in the FedExCup. List, who grew up in north Georgia, tied for third in Houston, his third top 10 this season and seventh top-20 finish. Former UGA golfer and Aiken, S.C., resident Kevin Kisner is 18th in the FedExCup and is in the Masters, one of nine players with Georgia ties playing in Augusta.
Henley turns 28 the week after the Masters, and will be playing in Augusta for the first time since he was married in late 2015 to a prominent artist in Charleston, S.C. Like Henley, his wife is a Georgia native (Columbus), with the couple living in Charleston. Henley is a musician away from the golf course, playing guitar with bands that have made appearances at PGA Tour-affiliated concerts.