When you win your first tournament as a PGA Tour member with five birdies on your last five holes in the final round, what can you do for an encore?
After winning the 2013 Hawaiian Open in rather dramatic fashion, Macon native Russell Henley found himself in that situation,
Henley’s spectacular start to his PGA Tour career was followed by more than a year of less-than-desirable results. But his struggles that began midway through his rookie season and continued through the West Coast swing early this year, came to an abrupt end in the Honda Classic, the start of the tour’s month-long string of stops in Florida.
With his victory at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Henley pulled even with former UGA teammates Harris English and Patrick Reed as players under the age of 25 with two PGA Tour titles.
Reed made it three wins the following week in the World Golf Championship event at Doral, but there are still just four players who fall into that category, with the fourth being Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy was Henley’s playing partner the final round in the Honda and was a big part of what turned out to be one of the wilder conclusions to a PGA Tour event in recent years.
The 23-year-old Henley introduced himself to followers of the PGA Tour when he won the 2013 Hawaiian Open by three strokes, firing his third 63 of the week on Sunday, capped by five birdies on the final five holes at Waialae Country Club to hold off an equally fast-finishing Tim Clark.
Henley’s 24-under 256 total was one of the lowest in PGA Tour history, with his victory earning him spots in the fields for all four majors, the Players Championship and three WGC events.
But after competing in the 2014 Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, all the perks that came with Henley’s 2013 victory had reached their expiration date, other than his PGA Tour exemption, which extends through 2015.
At the top of Henley’s to-do list for 2014 was a return to the Masters, which required a victory in one of the events leading up to this year’s tournament. Henley accomplished that with his win at PGA National, and the former Georgia Bulldog has returned his name to the list of the tour’s top young players, along side those of Reed, English and Jordan Spieth.
Success on the PGA Tour came swiftly for Henley, maybe too swiftly. He played well on two of the tour’s most respected courses – Sea Pines and Muirfield Village. But other than those ties for sixth in the Heritage Classic and Memorial Tournament, Henley was a non-factor for the rest of his rookie season.
“I think it was a lot to deal with after I won,” Henley said of the victory in Hawaii in his post-Honda media interview. “I played in the Masters, played in all the majors, played in all the WGCs, and I don’t know that I was really prepared to do all that mentally.
“I don’t remember being really into the practicing as much as I am now, and I think I just wasn’t ready for it. I think I’ve definitely grown a lot since then, and hopefully after this win, I can be a little bit more consistent. But obviously that’s always the goal.”
Henley performed consistently through the latter stages of the 2013 season and the early tournaments of the 2013-14 wraparound schedule, but it wasn’t the kind of consistency a professional golfer seeks.
The occasional missed was cut interspersed with a series of finishes outside the top 50, with Henley’s turnaround beginning with a decidedly inconsistent showing in Los Angeles in his last start before the win in south Florida.
After an opening round 78 at Riviera Country Club had him near the bottom of the field, Henley came back with a 66 the next day to miss the cut by just one shot.
“I took the momentum from that Friday into this week, for sure,” Henley said following his win in the Honda.
After the 78, Henley says he adopted the attitude that he was “just going to play golf today and hit it hard. For some reason, I convinced myself the first four weeks this year that I was all of a sudden going to start not missing any shots and hitting it perfect all the time. Every day was going to be the same.”
That contrasted with Henley’s previously established mindset that “every day I feel a little different, and you just have to go with whatever you feel. I just said I was going to swing hard, swing aggressive and go chase it.
“Had a really nice round there, almost made the cut, and that gave me a lot of confidence. I just kind of rode that confidence into this week.”
Henley spent most of the Honda Classic trying to keep up with McIlroy, who led after each of the first three rounds. Henley trailed by one after an opening 64, and followed with back-to-back 68s to stay within two of the leader going to the final round.
After trailing by as many as four shots on the front nine, Henley pulled even when he birdied the 13th and chipped in for another birdie at the 14th. But as quickly as he erased the deficit, he fell two behind McIlroy when he splashed his tee shot on the par-3 15th, the first hole of the daunting “Bear Trap” at PGA National.
McIlroy returned the favor when he found the water with his second shot on the 16th and made double bogey. Henley was tied for the lead going to the par-5 18th, but hit a poor chip after missing the green with his second shot.
Needing birdie to get into a playoff after a bogey at the 17th, McIlroy had a chance for an eagle and a victory following a spectacular second shot on the 18th. He missed the putt, resulting in a four-way playoff that began at the 18th.
This time, Henley knocked it on in two and two-putted for birdie, while McIlroy and the other two members of the playoff quartet settled for par. It was not an unfamiliar situation for Henley, who had displayed his propensity for clutch play in his successful rookie season on the Web.com Tour in 2012.
Henley won a pair of tournaments late that season to secure his PGA Tour card for 2013, both time holing clutch putts on the 72nd hole of regulation to get into playoffs, which he ended quickly.
Since his days in Athens, where he won eight college tournaments plus the Georgia Amateur and a Web.com Tour event at the UGA course, Henley has been known as someone who takes advantage of his opportunities to win, and has already collected five professional titles before his 25th birthday.
Henley also qualified for the U.S. Open during his college career, tying for 16th at Pebble Beach in 2010 to share low amateur honors. He again made the cut the following year at Congressional, but admittedly was caught off guard when he qualified for the Masters as a rookie.
As a junior golfer, Henley attended the Masters regularly, and got to play there a few times while a member of the Georgia golf team. Playing Augusta National in a tournament, however, was an entirely different experience.
“It was definitely a little bit overwhelming,” Henley said. “I didn’t expect to be in the Masters my first year on tour.”
After a solid first round, Henley struggled the next day, which happened to be his birthday, and missed the cut. If he wants to play on his birthday this year, he will have to make the cut, with his birthday on Masters Saturday.
Until his victory at PGA National, Henley was dealing with the likelihood that he would celebrate his 25th birthday somewhere other then Augusta, which is approximately halfway between Macon and Charleston, S.C., where he has lived for most of his short career as a tour pro.
“I saw a couple Masters commercials this week,” Henley said after his win. “I’ll be honest, it hurt. It hurts to see guys wearing the hat that you’re wearing and knowing I wasn’t in. I just can’t imagine not playing there again. I just feel that would hurt me really bad.
“I try to think positive and not get my hopes up too much about it. I definitely think about it a lot. Hopefully this year will be a little bit better than the last.”