By Mike Blum
Only a handful of tournaments on the 2012 Nationwide Tour will have their defending champion in the field.
The Stadion Classic at UGA is very happy to be one of them.
Macon’s Russell Henley won the 2011 Stadion Classic while still a part of the UGA golf team, and will be back to defend his title in early May as a professional.
Henley is a fully exempt member of the Nationwide Tour this year, competing in his rookie season as a professional after making only two starts on the tour last year following his victory in Athens.
Prior to winning the 2011 Stadion Classic, Henley had made just two Nationwide starts, both coming the previous year. He tied for 34th in Athens in his debut in a professional event, and also made the cut later in 2010 in Columbus, O.
Henley came into the 2011 Stadion Classic off a mostly disappointing senior season on the UGA golf team. But after an opening round of 72 that consisted of 17 pars and one bogey, Henley took apart the long and demanding UGA course over the next three days, carding scores of 66-66-68 to win by two strokes.
It was just the second victory ever on the Nationwide Tour by an amateur, with Harris English, Henley’s teammate for four years, becoming the third amateur to win on the tour later in the season in Columbus.
Almost a year later, Henley is getting an even greater appreciation of how significant his victory was.
“I thought it was a pretty big deal at the time,” Henley says of his victory last year. “But the more I play this game, the more I realize how hard it is to win one of these tournaments.”
Speaking a few days before the start of the Louisiana Open, Henley reflected on his historic victory and its impact on his budding professional career.
Henley’s victory came on a course he had played repeatedly over his four years in Athens. But what made the biggest impact on him was the number of familiar faces in the galleries that turned out last year.
As he walked the course for four days, Henley says he was struck by “how many friends and people I knew came out and watched. I felt like I knew everybody. Every time I looked up, it seemed like I saw somebody I knew.”
With a feeling that he was playing “at home,” Henley avoided the final round struggles that have plagued so many players on the PGA and Nationwide Tours trying to win for the first time.
After back-to-back rounds of 66, Henley entered the final round tied for the lead. Following a bogey on the opening hole, Henley birdied three of the next five holes to take the lead, and preserved it with 11 pars and a birdie over the final 12 holes.
“For some reason, I was confident in myself coming down the stretch,” he said. “I had done well in the past when I was in the hunt, and I drew confidence from other tournaments.
“It was a big step for me.”
Since his victory, Henley has experienced the ups and downs that are part of the life of professional – and amateur – golfers.
Henley’s poor finish the final day of stroke play competition in the NCAA Championship almost cost the Bulldogs a spot in the match play competition, but he recovered to win all three of his singles matches, including the championship match Georgia lost to in-state opponent Augusta State.
In the U.S. Amateur, Henley was knocked out in the early rounds, but his loss came in extra holes to Patrick Cantlay, who went on to reach the finals.
After a tough first day in the Walker Cup, Henley won his opening singles match in the final session, but it wasn’t enough to prevent an American defeat.
Henley turned pro after the Walker Cup, but was able to get into only two Nationwide Toru events before his debut appearance in PGA Tour qualifying. Starting at second stage, Henley did not play well and failed to reach the finals, but his victory in Athens had ensured him exempt status on the Nationwide Tour this year.
Having exempt status “is huge,” Henley says. ”It took a lot of pressure off Q school.”
Unlike English, who made it through Q school in his initial effort, Henley will not play on the PGA Tour as a professional rookie, but says he is OK with that.
“I’m actually more excited to start here. A lot of guys who get out there right out of college struggle. Harris has done awesome, but it’s a big learning curve. I’m happy I’m starting here. All my four years of college and all the steps I’ve taken are part of a long road.
“I’m right where I need to be.”
Henley began his rookie season with trips to Colombia, Panama and Chile, and he described the experience as “pretty awesome. I got to visit some other countries and learn a lot about other cultures and things not having to do with golf.
“It makes you appreciate what you have.”
A poor first round in Colombia resulted in a missed cut, but Henley turned in solid efforts in Panama and Chile, tying for 33rd and 23rd with eight straight rounds of par or better.
Like any rookie, Henley has a lot to learn, with the week-to-week travel a big part of the adjustment from college to the pros.
“It can get a little bit lonely sometimes,” Henley says. “I’m a big team guy. That’s one of the things I miss a little bit.”
Henley is also getting used to the concept of playing for pay.
“I’m starting to realize that you get paid if you play well. I had never played for money.”
As an amateur, Henley could not accept the $99,000 check for winning last year’s Stadion Classic. As a pro, however, he says, “If you have a chance to win a tournament, you think about how much you might get paid. You can’t think about things like that.”
After his brief experience on the Nationwide Tour, Henley has the belief that his game is up to the challenge of playing at that level. Part of that stems from his play in the U.S. Open each of the last two years. Henley tied for 16th at Pebble Beach in 2010 to share low amateur honors, and was second among the amateurs last year at Congressional, tying for 42nd.
Henley won the GSGA Junior Championship in 2006, and captured back-to-back Georgia Amateur titles in 2008 and ’09, the first at Idle Hour, his home club. Henley was an All-American in each of his four years in Athens, and was Golfweek Player of the Year in 2010 as a junior. He won seven times during his college career, matching Chris Kirk on Georgia’s all-time victory list.
The recent ex-Bulldog is confident that his game, which has brought him this far, is capable of succeeding at the level at which he is currently playing, as well as getting him to his ultimate goal – the PGA Tour.
To do that, Henley will need to enjoy success on the Nationwide Tour this year, or play well in what will be the final edition of Q-school as a direct path to the PGA Tour. After missing the cut in Louisiana, he was 67th on the money list four tournaments into the season.
The UGA course and Kinderlou Forest in Valdosta are among the toughest courses to host Nationwide Tour events, and Henley is looking forward to both tournaments.
“I like hard courses,” he said. “I played pretty well in two Opens.”