To say the least, Russell Henley made a rather sizeable splash in his debut event on the PGA Tour.
Henley, a Macon native and recent standout on the U. of Georgia golf team, accomplished the rare feat of winning a PGA Tour event in his first start as a tour member, scoring a beyond impressive victory in the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Winning is not exactly an unaccustomed experience for the 23-year-old Henley. He won back-to-back Georgia Amateur titles in 2008 and ’09, matched Chris Kirk for most victories in UGA history (seven), and collected three titles in his 31 starts on the Nationwide/Web.com Tour, the first while he was still a member of the UGA golf team.
Henley came into the tournament as perhaps the hottest player in the field, judging by his play late in the 2012 Web.com Tour schedule. In his final four starts of the season, he finished 6th, 1st, 3rd and 1st, and during practice for the Hawaiian Open, felt confident that the momentum he built up late in 2012 was still with him.
“I don’t care what happens this week or next week,” he told his caddy shortly before the start of the tournament. “I feel like I’m playing great right now, and I think something good is going to happen soon. I feel like I picked up right where I left off with the Web.com season and kind of carried over my confidence.
“And here I am.”
“Here” was in the media center after winning the Hawaiian Open with a record-breaking score of 24-under 256, four shots better than the previous low 72-hole total. His 256 total tied Mark Calcavecchia for third lowest in modern tour history, behind only Tommy Armour III (254) and Steve Stricker (255).
Henley finished the tournament in style, carding birdies on the final five holes Sunday to hold off a surging Tim Clark, who birdied the last four. Clark ended up 2nd, three shots behind Henley, with Augusta native Charles Howell and PGA Tour rookie Scott Langley, Henley’s co-star for the week, tying for 3rd, seven strokes back.
The victory included a long list of perks for Henley, beginning with an invitation to the 2013 Masters. Henley attended the Masters annually as a kid, and got to play the course a handful of times as a member of the UGA golf team. This year, he’ll be inside the ropes, playing in front of thousands of spectators, some of whom will undoubtedly be woofing for the recent Georgia grad.
Henley, who vaulted to 50th in the World Rankings, also earned spots into the Players Championship, WGC Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship. He will likely be in the fields for the other two WGC events in the U.S. (Match Play Championship and Doral), and is in position to make his first start in the U.S. Open as a pro.
“I’m pretty speechless,” said Henley of his reaction to the victory and what it would mean. “I was trying not to think about Augusta out there… Just everything I could do to psych myself out of thinking about winning. It worked.”
Henley is also exempt on the PGA Tour through the 2015 season, and has an oversized check for $1,008,000 he can proudly display.
The narrow Waialae CC course is not one of the toughest on the PGA Tour, but no one has ever taken it apart as thoroughly as Henley did.
Henley’s scores for the week were 63-63-67-63. His final round 63 matched the low score of the day, highlighted by a 29 on the back nine. Henley trailed first round playing partner Langley by one shot after 18 holes, led Langley by two after 36 and shared the lead with his fellow rookie going to the final round.
The two rookies, who became friends during their stint on the 2010 Palmer Cup team, played together all four rounds, providing a comfortable pairing for Henley. Both players made their national debuts in the same event while in college, sharing low amateur honors in the 2010 U.S. Open.
Henley and Langley were tied after three rounds, but Henley took the lead for good when he birdied the opening hole Sunday and Langley made a nervous bogey. Henley hit what was likely the shot of the day, an approach from 204 yards to inside three feet, and his lead was steady at either two or three strokes throughout the final round.
Although he didn’t show it, Henley admitted, “That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been. I couldn’t feel my legs or my arms. They were just numb and just moving fast, and I felt like I couldn’t control them. But I’ve been in that situation before, just not quite as dramatic.”
Henley was superb from start to finish in the tournament. He opened the tournament with back-to-back scores of 63, hitting all 18 greens in the second round. For the week, he missed only 12 of 72 greens and failed to get up and down just twice, notching 26 birdies against only two bogeys.
As good as Henley’s ball striking was, his putting was even better. He averaged saving three strokes per round putting, with Langley the only other player who even approached that stat for the week.
Henley one-putted seven times on the back nine Sunday, closing out his round with five straight birdie putts of 44, 12, 12, 17 and 8 feet.
“That’s pretty good.” Henley said. “Some of the best I’ve ever done under pressure for sure, by far.”
Putting well under pressure has been a staple for Henley in his wins, including a pair of clutch putts on the 72nd hole to get into playoffs in his two Web.com victories late last season.
Henley drew comparisons to Brandt Snedeker – both in appearance and especially in putting style – not a bad thing considering Snedeker won the 2012 Tour Championship and FedExCup, and is considered perhaps the No. 1 putter on the PGA Tour.
“I think as I got older in high school, the more I played, I remember I would just keep hearing from people, ‘Man, he’s good at putting.’ The more I heard that, the more it kind of got locked in my mind. Once you get it locked in your mind, you feel that it’s your strength.”
As many highlights as Henley has enjoyed the past few years, he has also suffered through his share of disappointments.
As a junior at Georgia, Henley won the Fred Haskins Award as the country’s top collegiate golfer, and was also named Player of the Year by Golfweek. But he struggled for most of his senior season, which ended with a loss to Augusta State in the NCAA Championship match.
Henley’s victory on his college home course in the Stadion Classic at UGA was just the second by an amateur on the Web.com Tour, and earned him exempt status for the 2012 season, his first as a professional.
Prior to turning pro, Henley competed in a second straight U.S. Open as an amateur, and again made the cut in 2011, and made all five cuts as an amateur in his professional starts, tying for 34th in the Stadion Classic at UGA in his pro debut in 2010.
The first half of Henley’s rookie season consisted of missed cuts and middle of the pack finishes, but he was likely the tour’s best player the second half. Henley encountered some early adjustment issues to life as a tour player, but eventually adapted.
With his victory in Hawaii, that won’t be a problem on the PGA Tour.
Henley became the first rookie to win his PGA Tour debut since 2001, and the previous player to do that won a second tier tournament played opposite a WGC event.
After spending his first 17 years in Macon and most of the next four in Athens, Henley is now living in Charleston, S.C., following a brief stay on St. Simons Island, which may have been a little quiet for someone who lists Kid Rock and the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl as part of his dream foursome.
“I like the courses there,” he said. “Charleston has great food and a great feel, and lots of live music. It just has all the things I like to do.”
After his win in Hawaii, however, Henley may not be spending quite as much time in Charleston this year as he expected, especially the second week in April.
By Mike Blum