Bulldog senior wins pro event on UGA course
By Mike Blum
After earning the Fred Haskins Award as the 2010 outstanding collegiate golfer in the country, Russell Henley came into his senior season on the Georgia golf team with lofty expectations.
But with the exception of one weekend last Fall in his hometown of Macon, Henley’s final season with the Bulldogs had been a disappointment by almost any standards.
All that changed over the course of four days in early May in Athens.
Henley became just the second amateur to win a Nationwide Tour event, capturing the Stadion Classic at UGA on the golf course he has played on a regular basis during his four years of college.
Less than a week before graduating, Henley did something that players like Sergio Garcia, Charles Howell and Rickie Fowler were unable to do as amateurs – win on the tour that is the last stop for players on the way to golf’s major leagues.
Garcia, Howell and Fowler all scored top three finishes on the Nationwide Tour shortly before joining the PGA Tour, and Henley hopes to join them in the near future.
Henley has the option of turning pro and joining the Nationwide Tour for the remainder of the 2011 season, but will remain an amateur through the Summer, hopefully concluding his amateur career in the Walker Cup in early September.
Thanks to his victory, Henley will be exempt on the Nationwide Tour in 2012, even if he turns down tour membership for this year. He would enter Q school this Fall, knowing he will have exempt status on the 2012 Nationwide Tour if he fails to earn his PGA Tour card.
Early last Fall, Henley tied current PGA Tour rookie and ex-Georgia Bulldog Chris Kirk with seven career victories, the most in team history. But after winning the Brickyard Collegiate in Macon for the second straight year, Henley struggled for the remainder of his senior season.
After finishing 2010 as the top-ranked player in the country in the Golfweek rankings, Henley was 33rd going into the NCAA Regionals, and did not come close to claiming an eighth career title.
Henley says his struggles were the result of “a little problem with my backswing,” something he has evidently ironed out. While Henley did not enjoy his rare stretch of consistently sub-standard play, he readily admits that it will be beneficial to him in the long run.
“I would not be as good a player if I played good every time,” Henley said after his Nationwide Tour triumph. “Because I struggled, that only made me stronger. I kept a positive attitude instead of getting down on myself.
“Playing bad has made me a better player.”
There wasn’t much that Henley did in the Stadion Classic that could be categorized as bad. He opened the tournament with a 1-over 72 in cool, breezy conditions, recording 17 pars to go along with a long bogey on the 5th hole.
Henley shot himself into contention with an outstanding second round, firing a bogey-free 66 in the late afternoon twilight, hitting 17 of 18 greens. That pulled him into a tie for fourth, just two off the lead of former Florida Gator and U.S. Amateur champion (at East Lake) Bubba Dickerson.
Even after the 66 moved him near the top of the leader board, Henley wasn’t sure he had a serious shot at victory.
“I figured those guys would keep going low and I needed 5-or-6-under the next day.”
Henley matched his 66 from the day before, notching eight birdies to more than offset three bogeys. He closed his round with consecutive birdies at 15, 16 and 17, and when the day ended, found himself in a tie for the lead at 9-under 204 with Troy Kelly, who needed a strong showing in the tournament to retain his status on the Nationwide Tour.
“After the third day, I knew I had a chance,” said Henley.
Kelly, 32, a native of Tacoma, Wash., who competed on the PGA Tour in 2009, is playing under a medical extension after missing the second half of the 2010 season with an injury. He needed a strong showing in Athens and got it, finishing in solo second at 10-under 274. With Henley unable to accept the winner’s check, Kelly collected first place money of $99,000 to move up to fifth on the money list.
For the most part, the final round was a two-man battle between Henley and Kelly, although a trio of challengers inched close to the lead on the back nine.
Former Clemson golfer Matt Hendrix from Aiken, S.C., tied for third at 9-under 275 with recent Clayton State golfer Will Wilcox. Danny Lee, like Dickerson a past U.S. Amateur champion, tied for fifth at 276 with three other golfers, including Dickerson.
Henley bogeyed the opening hole to lose his share of the lead, but matched Kelly’s birdie at the par-4 second with an outstanding approach shot. Henley took a lead he would never relinquish with a birdie putt he estimated at 50 feet on the long par-4 fourth while Kelly made bogey.
The two players again matched birdies at the short, par-4 sixth, with Kelly pulling even for the final time when he birdied the par-5 seventh. Bogeys at 9 and 10 dropped Kelly two behind Henley, but he reduced his deficit to one with a birdie at the perilous par-5 12th while Henley settled for par after an errant tee shot.
Henley battled a case of the lefts with his driver for much of the back nine, which he attributed to an understandable onset of nerves.
“I got nervous and my hands got quick. I was just flipping them a bit,” Henley explained. “I’ll definitely take note of that.”
Lee and Hendrix both got to 10-under midway through the back nine, but Henley gave himself a little cushion when he drilled a slick downhill birdie putt on the 15th. With Lee, Kelly and Hendrix all carding bogeys late in their rounds, Henley’s lead briefly reached three shots before Wilcox eagled the par-5 17th and Kelly birdied the hole to go the 18th two behind his playing partner.
Henley again went left off the tee on the long par-4 finishing hole at the UGA course, but had enough of a gap between the trees to fire at the flag, with his second shot ending up pin high left, just off the edge of the green with the pin cut back left.
Kelly placed some pressure on Henley when he landed his second shot inside 10 feet from the cup, but missed his birdie attempt after Henley’s deft chip settled within a few feet of hole. Henley holed the short par putt to lock up his memorable victory.
“I played good golf today,” Henley observed. “I kept hitting greens and gave myself a lot of chances.”
For the week, Henley tied for fourth in greens in regulation, hitting 56 of 72 (78 percent). He struggled to hit fairways (T61, 30 of 56), but took advantage of the firm conditions to average a massive 337 yards on the holes measured for driving distance, placing third, just 5 yards behind tournament leader and former Ryder Cupper Brett Wetterich.
Henley also had a good week on the greens, at least after the first round, tying for 12th and 17th in the two primary putting stats.
The decision to remain an amateur for the rest of the Summer was not an especially difficult one for Henley.
“I play golf because I love to play golf and compete,” said Henley. “I’ll stay amateur (through the Summer) for sure.”
Once he concludes his college career in either the Regionals or the NCAA Championship, Henley will play a busy amateur schedule the next few months. It begins with a second appearance in the Palmer Cup, an annual competition between top collegians from the U.S. and Europe scheduled for June 9-11 in Greenwich, Conn.
Henley will play in five amateur events leading up to the U.S. Amateur in August, with one of his appearances coming in the Dogwood Invitational at Atlanta’s Druid Hills GC June 29-July 2.
“That’s a lot of golf,” says Henley. “Maybe more than I wanted.”
The only possible Nationwide Tour event that Henley could “fit in” between now and the Walker Cup, which will be played Sept. 10-11 in Scotland, is in Columbus, Oh., where Henley played last year.
Henley has competed in four professional events, making the cut in his two Nationwide Tour starts last year (he was T34 in the Stadion Classic) and sharing low amateur honors in the U.S. Open, tying for 16th. Henley also captured the Georgia Amateur in both 2008 and ’09, claiming his first GSGA Championship title in ’08 at his home club (Idle Hour) and successfully defending his title at the Country Club of Columbus.
Harris English, Henley’s fellow senior on the UGA golf team, also turned in a strong effort in the Stadion Classic, tying for 18th. English, who tied for 27th last year in the tournament, improved his score each day, shooting 72-71-69-68 for a 4-under 280 total.
Former Georgia Tech golfer Roberto Castro notched his fourth top-20 finish in six starts this season on the Nationwide Tour, tying for 15th at 279. Ex-Bulldog Brendon Todd continued his comeback from a disastrous 2010 season, tying for 31st at 282, with former teammate Brian Harman of Savannah T39 at 283.
Harman, who plays primarily on the eGolf Tour, earned is spot in the first with a top 25 finish the previous week in Valdosta, playing his way into that event in a Monday qualifier.